Last night at Sunset Center in Carmel, we heard a recital by Michael Noble, the Gold Medal Winner of the Carmel Music Society’s 2013 Piano Competition. As we observed last year during the Competition, Michael Noble is a thoughtful pianist whose music making has something to say. I mean this as a compliment, for a disturbing trend among young pianists today is to barnstorm their way through music to display gratuitous virtuosity. Even intrinsically musical pianists like Yuja Wang will exploit great masterpieces for effect and disappoint her fans unless she ends her recital with her specialty, a trashy performance of György Cziffra’s transcription of Rimsky–Korsakoff ‘s “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
Thus it is refreshing to hear Michael Noble address himself to the music with great sincerity and achieve pleasing results. A case in hand was his lovely performance of Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor, K. 511. This piece features a melancholy, waltz-like theme that constantly evolves through subtle variations, although momentarily interrupted by a charming episode in A Major, and finally returns to its melancholy theme to wind up with a poignant and moving coda. Noble played this minor masterpiece with great feeling and elegant shaping of phrases. One of the most interesting aspects of his performance was his addition of tasteful ornamentation and embellishment that contributed to some charming little surprises along the way.
His second offering of the evening was a performance of the Sieben Fantasien, Op. 116, by Brahms. Since four out of the seven pieces tended to be slow and contemplative, once again we heard further examples of the tender side of Michael Noble. Especially memorable were the Intermezzi numbers 2 and 6, in which we heard beautifully expressive cantabile and occasional sotto voce effects that were very effective. In the stormy beginning and ending Capriccios Noble managed to add considerable passion and excitement to the set of seven pieces.
After intermission Noble performed eight of the 24 Preludes by Rachmaninoff, four from Op. 23 and four from Op. 32. As an unusual twist, he chose to insert between the two groups of preludes a brief, six-minute work by composer Hans Otte – Part 1 from Das Buch der Klänge (‘The Book of Sounds’). It was obviously his intention to play the entire second half of the program as a suite, without interruption, and this is precisely what he did. The Otte work was strongly infused with minimalism and at times seemed to be going nowhere. However, just when you thought we were only going around in circles, we would be taken in new directions, so the work ended up charming us and achieving quite a cumulative effect.
Rachmaninoff ‘s music has strongly rebounded from being out of fashion in the decades after his death to its ever-increasing popularity today. Noble achieved some especially magnificent moments in the F-sharp minor Prelude, Op. 23, No. 1 and in the G-sharp minor Prelude, Op. 32, No. 12 (I have never heard this Prelude played better). One of his most interesting performances was the final Prelude in D-flat major, Op. 32, No. 12. This is a piece so intimidating on the page – there are so many notes that at times the score looks like a bunch of squashed flies. Most pianists considerable this piece unplayable, and even Vladimir Ashkenazy couldn’t succeed in making it into a successful piece of music. Well, Michael Noble gave it his best and achieved some surprisingly effective moments.
We were rewarded with one encore: Scriabin’s Etude in F-sharp minor. It was beautiful!