Pianist Jeffrey Kahane alternately charmed and disappointed us yesterday afternoon at Sunset Center as he performed the second concert in the Carmel Music Society’s 2012-2013 season. Kahane, a talented and versatile musician, has made his mark as a classical pianist, shown a natural affinity for jazz idioms, and has distinguished himself as an ensemble partner and orchestra conductor.
His performance of the final movement of Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17, was all we might hope for from a pianist who was a fourth prize winner in the 1981 Van Cliburn Piano Competition and a first prize winner in the 1983 Artur Rubinstein Competition. Demonstrating in this movement artistic levels of musicianship and a total mastery of the tonal capabilities of the modern Steinway, he effortlessly meshed these skills together to spin some magic and create a beautifully poignant mood. As members of the audience headed for the lobby at intermission, more than one person was heard humming the themes from this movement — Kahane’s sensitive performance was that infectious.
After intermission, we heard some more fine playing in the Suite for Piano by Pavel Haas. In five brief movements, Kahane managed to unleash some violent, dissonant, bittersweet music with an internal logic and external brilliance that was totally convincing. This was followed by two compositions by Kahane’s son Gabriel –”Django: Tiny Variations on a Big Dog” and “Where Are the Arms.” These two works had merit in themselves and were not just the rantings of a proud parent. In “Django,” written at the request of his father for a piece to play at a Lincoln Center recital, Gabriel structured the piece in five short movements titled: “Dog Run, Night Watch, The Water Bowl is Empty, Mechanized Django, and SPCA Blues.” Two of the five movements, “Mechanized Django” (a difficult toccata) and “SPCA Blues” (wicked and jazzy) were especially effective. Although throughout the five movements we heard polyrhythms with conflicting meters in each hand, Kahane always managed to keep the rhythmic pulse steady and the textures clearly articulated. Kahane’s transcription of his son’s song, “Where are the Arms,” the inspiration for which came from “Love gone AWOL” was beautifully played with tender feelings that created a sadly nostalgic mood.
However, there were disappointing parts of the program, the first of which was an odd performance of Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major. With the best intentions, Kahane decided to add improvised ornamentation and embellishment wherever he could, and he did so everywhere, except in the fastest sections where rapid tempos (and his were more rapid than usual) made it impossible to embellish them any further. Although a more logical plan might have been to play each section first as Bach had written it and then apply ornamentation and embellishment in the repeats, the entire suite was so overloaded with embellishment that Baroque became Rococo and the structure was so corrupted with extraneous clutter that Bach’s original design was difficult to discern. Then, there is the matter of the pedaling. Anyone who has seen photos in The New York Times of András Schiff playing both Books of Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” in two consecutive evening recitals with his feet seemingly nailed to the floor and never touching the piano’s pedals during the four-hour duration would have observed that Kahane used the damper pedal frequently — it was certainly welcome in slower sections, although less so in faster passages where it blurred the textures.
The biggest disappointments were in the the first two movements of the Schumann Fantasy, in Chopin’s Barcarolle, in the Schumann/Liszt Widmung, and in the Mendelssohn Song Without Words, Op. 38, No. 6 (“Duetto). In these we tended to hear tempos so rapid, and dynamics so unnecessarily loud that the composers’ intentions were ignored and sacrificed for virtuoso display. This is not an uncommon occurrence in piano recitals today, although the great pianists of the past never produced an ugly sound. Most of all, it raised the question, where is the respect for the music being performed, and where is the respect for the sensibilities of the audience that has to listen to such excesses?
Jeffrey Kahane is a fine musician who long ago proved that he has a technique equal to any pianist alive today. He also has a palette of expressive poetic colors, which, when he chooses to use them (as he did in the last movement of the Fantasy), can create great beauty. This afternoon, in the first two movements of the Schumann Fantasy, in the Chopin Barcarolle, and in the transcriptions of songs by Schubert and Mendelssohn, where was the poetry and beauty, of which he is so capable?
Responding to the applause from the audience, Kahane played one encore, another Mendelssohn “Song Without Words.” It, also, was over played — too loud and so fast so that the music suffered.