Bravos not only to pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi on his superb all-romantic piano recital, his first here in 15 years, but also to Distinguished Artists Concert & Lecture Series founder and director John Orlando for 30 years of first-rate musical adventures. The recital was on June 4 at Peace United Church of Christ in Santa Cruz, site of the spectacular Yamaha CFX concert grand; the proceeds of the concert going towards the balance on this ultra world-class instrument. We were treated to lots of familiar Chopin, some unusual sounds from a big Edward Grieg sonata, a brilliant take off on Liszt by the contemporary Roberto Piana (not “piano”), and what was almost a Viennese waltz by none other than Avant Guard 20th-century French innovator Francis Poulenc. And present at the end of the concert to award a triumphal bouquet of flowers was native San Lorenzo Valley pianist Chetan Tierra, himself an award-winning pianist, who reveled in the presence of Pompa-Baldi, his teacher and mentor at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
This reviewer had heard Pompa-Baldi many years ago and found him a bit tame and cautious. Fortunately, on this occasion, the still youngish pianist, garbed all in black, played with tremendous fire when needed, along with a great depth and humility. Also, he did not comment on the music nor did he try to “pump up” the audience with extraneous dramatic gestures. Quiet and composed at all times, Pompa-Baldi let all of this rich romantic fare speak for itself via the keyboard-soundboard of the great Yamaha CFX, with its “power steering” action and infinite expressivity.
The program opened most unusually with Chopin’s (1809-49) huge “Sonata No. 2, Op. 35 in B Flat minor,” his famous “Funeral March” (1839), this being the “warm-up” to the rest of the program. To my ears the first movement was a bit too fast, my only criticism of the entire evening. During the third movement, “Marche Funèbre,” we could imagine a horse-drawn coffin inching along the narrow lanes of Père Lachaise cemetary in Paris, with its slow middle section a mystical prayer and hope for heaven, while clanging onward, before the Presto fourth movement. This final movement some have called “a wind whispering over the graves” and Chopin himself termed “merely two hands gossiping,” which indeed they did right up to the final big bang chord, played here as well as any of the old masters including Rachmaninoff and Rubinstein.
Next, we were treated to a big, but seldom-performed work by the diminutive Norwegian Edward Grieg (1843-1907), his “Sonata in E Minor,” sonically very different from his still popular piano concert and the “Peer Gynt” Suite. Here, we found a classical structure within the romantic world as in Brahms, The performance of this four-movement work was in its beginning fast and assertive, alternating with slower and more expressive moments. Pompa-Baldi coaxed bell-like tones from the piano, with tension ultimately building with haunting melodies to a fiery conclusion with tricky passages and, as in Brahms, a non-specific religious fervor, along with technical difficulties that the pianist had long ago conquered.
Chopin was again represented, this time in his twelve Etudes Op. 10”(1829). These exquisite and challenging works, so full of much more than mere technical exercises; are some of the finest piano music ever written. During his probing performances, Poma-Baldi put me in mind of the recorded sets by Vladimir Ashkenazy from the early 1960’s, still a recording landmark, and what we heard on this occasion was every bit as memorable.
Roberto Piana (b. 1971) parodied Liszt’s “Dante” Sonata with his own incredibly effortless adventure titled “Après d’un lecture de Liszt,” a terrific takeoff on themes and mannerisms of his great predecessor, the work commissioned by our pianist. To cap off his great recital, Pompa-Baldi offered us one amazing romantic encore, “The Path to Love,” by Francis Poulenc from the 1920’s but sounding as beautiful as a late 19th century Viennese waltz, elegant and memorable, as was indeed this whole recital.