With the conclusion of his second encore, Chopin’s perennial “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, pianist Mordecai Shehori concluded a stunning recital at the Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto, Saturday, November 16 for the Steinway Society the Bay Area series. His prior encore, Bach’s B Minor Prelude, in the Siloti arrangement, provided exactly the contrast that had marked Sheori’s recital from the outset, a display of dynamic and emotional extremes held in perfect balance by a master colorist of the keyboard, whose digital and pedal arsenal revealed a panoply of nuance within a fixed parameter of theatrical and dramatic affects.
Mordecai Shehori (b. 1946) embraces a number of scholarly and virtuoso traditions in his pedagogy, including studies with Mindru Katz and the legendary Vladimir Horowitz, whom Shehori calls “the greatest transcriber for the piano, exceeding Liszt.” An exacting student of keyboard literature, Shehori exerts scrupulous attention to the composer’s text, certifying a rare authenticity of performance. While mostly silent and undemonstrative at the keyboard, Shehori soon warmed to his enthusiastic audience, commenting upon the evolving program. Shehori opened with a group by Jean-Baptiste Lully, his Suite de Pieces (c. 1660), five dances whose emotional tenor Shehori restrained in an awesome demonstration of dynamic control, rarely exceeding a mezzo-forte, even in the course of relatively brisk tempos. His Air tendre basked in a music-box sonority, followed by lively, polyphonic Courante. The Allemande exhibited a ‘galant’ sensibility and extraordinary, even motion. The Spanish Sarabande assumed a dignified, martial sensibility, while the concluding Gigue provided Shehori a toccata in the manner of a perpetuum mobile in brilliant keyboard figuration.
Virtually attacca, without pause, Shehori launched into Beethoven’s 1820 Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109, which Shehori described as “a life-cycle.” Shehori clearly invited us to share what we may consider la vie interieure in Beethoven. This turned out to be a rarified vision of this composer’s world, wherein each element had already been carefully prepared by Shehori, from its Aeolian Harp intimacy in sixteenth notes to its often startling aggressive and improvisational musing. Few will soon forget the fury of Shehori’s attack on the first chords of the Prestissimo second movement in the parallel minor, given the degree of emotional containment he established in the first movement Vivace ma non troppo. The simplicity of the Theme that elicits the ensuing six variations caused a throb in the heart of all listeners this evening, especially as it became an instrumental arietta, reaching a startling scalar passage in Variation 3 and then transforming into a graceful dance in 9/8 at Variation 4. After some masterful counterpoint, Shehori entered the labyrinthine last variation, built on a huge pedal point with angular trills that settle into the E Minor air’s original form. The pregnant silence that followed the last chord spoke as much to Shehori’s profound rendition as the exhuberant applause that soon followed.
The first half of the recital concluded with Chopin’s rousing Bolero in A Minor, Op. 19 (1834), whose inspiration, according to Mr. Shehori, came from Chopin’s infatuation with a fifteen-year-old aristocratic girl he had met at a Rossini opera performance, for “Chopin was always pursuing women beyond his reach.” Glittery and plastic, the performance gave us bravura and reflection in one piece, yet never calling attention to Shehori as a prima donna. Its middle section evolved into a lovely nocturne combined with elements of a colorful impromptu, then returned to the sparkling roulades and ornaments that even the Lully experience in French music had established as essential and organic to the vocal line. Long a favorite of the late Mieczylaw Horszowski, the Chopin Bolero permitted Shehori to project its alternately bombastic and intimate lines.
The music of Claude Debussy began the second half, the Reflets dans l’eau from Images, Book I (1905). Built as a kind of rondo-form on pentatonic and whole-tone scales, the piece gave Shehori another opportunity to create a literal “wash” of colors, erotic in suggestive fragments, suddenly explosive, then dramatically silent. Debussy yielded the floor to Serge Rachmaninoff in a group six pieces, including three Etudes-Tableaux, two Préludes, and the transcription of his own song, “Daisies.” Shehori adopted a generally slow tempo for these pieces, though they did not lack for color and resonant drama. The A Minor Etude Tableau, Op. 39. No. 6 has been often characterized as an expression of “Little Red Riding Hood,” replete with the voracious wolf. By the end of the fiery piece, Shehori presented its fierce agogics and metric tempests with a huge maw that likely took our young heroine for dinner. Those Etudes in D Minor (No. 8) and D Major (No. 9), respectively, became huge, labyrinthine tone-poems rife with erotic nostalgia and Russian bells. The G Major Prelude, Op. 32, No. 5 – a Benno Moiseiwitsch specialty – sang most gracefully for Shehori, while the C Minor Prelude, Op. 23, No. 7 offered a study in double notes with the muscular solemnity of a concerto-movement.
The grand-finale proper to this recital – the same Shehori had offered in late October in Winnipeg – came by way Franz Liszt and Vladimir Horowitz, in their monumental transcription of Saint-Saens’ song and symphonic poem Danse Macabre (1872; rev. 1874). Shehori told us to imagine “Halloween at midnight,” and then engaged a series of the repeated note D for witching-hour chimes that invoked the Dies Irae of the Requiem Mass in its several guises. Shehori’s Steinway soon imitated xylophone effects, bells, and the full orchestra as Horowitz and Liszt added cadenzas of sweeping power to the original text. Often polyphonic, the writing demanded that Shehori play elaborate stretti or “piles” of layered sound, and fugatos of brisk power that alternated with the main melody that sang legato, a transposed operatic aria.
The resounding cheers at the end of the piece attested to the presence of a thoroughly poised and refined artist, secure in his ability to “make tone” and project degrees of thoughtful and noble musicality. It was a program of opposites, emotional and technical, a proof of the Camus proposition that the true genius does not cater to one extreme or the other, but embraces both extremes at once.