Prutsman Plays Bach — and More

Prutsman 7-18-13

Edwin Huizinga, Adrian Post, Stephen Prutsman, Nancy Lochner & Timothy Roberts

Pianist Stephen Prutsman’s trademark has always been interesting programing. He freely mixes classical and jazz elements, both in his choice of repertoire and also in his style of playing. Did he play an interesting program on this occasion? Yes, he certainly did!

Sandwiched in between concertos by Johann Christian Bach and Johann Sebastian Bach, Prutsman served up to us two jazz pieces of his own creation, Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde arranged for piano and string quartet, and a performance of J.S. Bach’s popular French Suite No. 5 in G Major with brief pieces by French composers interspersed between the movements of the suite.

Of Prutsman’s two jazz pieces, “Shadows” made the strongest impression. This eight-minute piece, consisting of a persistently descending bass line in passacaglia form, had a bluesy mood, effective chord progressions and lots of little moments where we were surprised by sudden twists and turns. His second piece, “Dog,” was violently energetic and spikey, although perhaps a little too long at six minutes. Both of these pieces, however, showed an original mind, a natural feel for jazz idioms and the brilliant technical command derived from a classical piano training put to good use.

Since the theme of the 2013 Carmel Bach Festival is “The French Connection,” it was appropriate and inspiring to hear Milhaud’s “La création du monde” in this intimate arrangement. In the five sections, Prélude, Fugue, Romance, Scherzo and Finale, we heard such terrific playing from Prutsman and the string players, it made us wonder, with all the chamber music we hear every season in Sunset Center, why are we not hearing this work more often. It has virtually everything: jazz elements (we heard snatches of Gershwin and the song “Swanee”), fascinating textures, expressions of jazz and African folklore and melodies that made you want to hear more.

After intermission we heard Prutsman perform Bach’s French Suite No. 5, in its entirety, but with its normal flow and continuity interrupted by the insertion between its seven movements of six short works by Couperin, Vladimir Cosma, Messiaen, Debussy, Rameau and Ravel. It would have been interesting to have heard the six interspersed works on their own as a separate program selection, for while they were uniformly beautifully played with taste, refinement, lovely style and charm, I wasn’t convinced they related to or enhanced Bach’s French Suite No. 5.

Prutsman’s playing in this concert raised some interesting issues about performance practice relative to the keyboard music of the eighteenth century. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing full stream after World War II, musicians began to be guided away from the well meaning but misguided nineteenth-century performing editions of Bach’s keyboard scores. New clean editions from publishers like Henle, Wiener Urtext and Bärenreiter, for example, began to appear, which were stripped of spuriously added pedaling, dynamic markings, crescendos, diminuendos, long slurs, short slurs, in addition to incorrect suggestions for the execution of ornaments and embellishments.

In universities and music schools everywhere courses in “Performance Practice” began to emerge, from which evolved the Movement “Historically Informed Performance” (HIP) involving aesthetic considerations in reevaluating the problems in performing music from the Renaissance through the present day, as well as awakening a new understanding of period instruments and their effect on modern day performances.

Since we are discussing Prutsman in context of his performances of 18th century keyboard music, it is significant to see how HIP has affected some of his peers, especially on the subject of pedaling. Pianists Perahia, Uchida and Ashkenazy, for example, use pedal very sparingly in 18th century music. However, pianists Andras Schiff and Jean-Louis Steuermann make it a fetish that their right foot never comes any closer than a mile to the damper pedal, which can be observed in public performance where their right feet appear as though nailed to the stage floor.

Thus, it was startling in the Concerto in E-flat Major, Op. 7, No. 5, by Johann Christian Bach to observe (and hear) that Prutsman’s right foot was on the damper pedal almost constantly throughout the concerto, which resulted in blurred harmonies, blurred 16th-note passages and blurred bass notes. My first thought that this was not HIP, but HOP (I just made that up, and it means “Hooked On Pedal”).

In Prutsman’s performance of the French Suite No. 5 (Bach’s original, not the insertions) there were also enough over-pedalings, applications of spurious accents and questionable dynamics and phrasings to raise a lot of HIP eyebrows everywhere.

However, in the final work on the program, J.S Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major, BWV 1053, Prutsman managed to avoid over pedaling and achieved a lot of clarity and articulation in his solo part (although his left hand playing seemed to be played legato throughout and with accents on unaccented beats).

Is the wheel starting to come full circle, with pianists retrogressing to 19th-century performance practices? Or we witnessing self-indulgence? Prutsman is fine pianist, a gifted performer and a great musician, as we heard in parts of this recital.



Archived in these categories: 20th Century, Baroque, Carmel Bach Festival, Chamber music, Concerto, Piano.
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