There are some concert pianists today who spend a lot of time on stage exploring the four levels of loud playing — forte, fortissimo, bangissimo and blastissimo — apparently in the belief that if they play fast enough and loud enough they will impress everyone. Jon Nakamatsu is not such a pianist. That he believes in elegance, lyricism and making music meaningful was amply displayed last night at Sunset Center in Carmel as he played a piano recital for Chamber Music Monterey Bay.
We heard a thoughtful program demonstrating the lyricism of Schumann, Schubert, Chopin and a composer unfamiliar to most of our audience, Lisa Bielawa (b.1968). Bielawa and Nakamatsu share an interesting kinship in the way their careers developed. Nakamatsu has degrees in German Studies and Education from Stanford and had an early career teaching German to high School students at the time he won the Gold Medal in the 1997 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Bielawa, although like Nakamatsu musically gifted from an early age, also seemed to be following a non-musical career path as she majored in English at Yale University. Fortunately for us, both musicians ultimately found their true calling.
Bielawa’s “Wait,” for piano solo and chorus, is an imaginative composition inspired by lines from Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. This work begins with pianist Nakamatsu alone on stage exploring a series of improvisatory sounds — some are clusters of notes and others are derived from interesting patterns. Four minutes into the work two women appear slowly from stage left and stage right to stand patiently and unmoving while facing the audience as though participants in a mime tableau. Eventually we are aware that their mouths begin to open, although initially no vocal sound is heard. Eventually we become aware that they are intoning a droning sound on a single pitch. A few minutes later the two women are joined by seven children from the San Francisco Girls Chorus who join in on the drone. Our ears quickly became acclimated to the unusual combination of piano and drone, which ultimately had a very pleasing cumulative effect.
Nakamatsu also demonstrated his lyrical and expressive playing in his lovely performances of two Schumann songs transcribed by Liszt and the Four Impromptus, Op. 90, by Schubert — the last two Schubert Impromptus in G-flat and A-flat major were especially effective. The first great surprise on the program was how Schumann’s Papillons, a work rarely heard on concert programs, and a work flawed by its constant fragmentation of musical ideas unfinished and whisked away from us before we have had a chance to enjoy them, was revealed by Nakamatsu as the masterpiece it truly is, although seldom heard as such. Nakamatsu’s mercurial touch and impulsive leaping from one mood to another served this piece well. This was quite simply the best performance of this work I have ever heard, live or on CD.
The other surprise was Nakamatsu’s totally involving performance of the slow and lyrical Andante spianato that preceded Chopin’s grand polonaise brillante. In the wrong hands this brief introductory piece can seem long and meandering. Nakamatsu’s lovely cantabile playing and deft handling of the ornamental embellishment kept us so involved, we were sorry when it was over. The concluding work, the grand polonaise brillante, was dazzling in its intensity and joie de vivre. Here was real virtuosity that never intruded, but instead served the music well.
After a standing ovation, we were rewarded with one encore: Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu.