I scurried into Herbst Theater this afternoon attempting to appear as though I were not absolutely losing my mind at the possibility of experiencing the Busoni transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s epic Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor, Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, and Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor live in one sitting. Part of the excitement stemmed from my confidence in Cohen’s ability to deliver fantastic performances, for I was quite familiar with his work (sitting on my bookshelf is his CD titled Liszt, from which I have studied his recording of the Sonata many years ago while I was learning it myself). As I made my way to my seat, I remembered the album photo of Cohen cliff diving into a lake, and wondered whether a man could play such a dramatic piece as Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca in swim trunks. My question remained unanswered for he appeared onstage in suitably appropriate attire and commenced to play.
While everyone loves the Brahms-Handel Variations, and a great performance it was, what I enjoyed most in Cohen’s recital was the two Liszt pieces. His performance of the Sonetto 104 del Petrarca perfectly mirrored the anguished yearning of Petrarch’s Sonetto 104. I could easily imagine the words of violent frustration and unrequited love sung out from the piano in the form of sudden fortissimo outbursts—only to be juxtaposed with lethargic, hopeless longing in the form of abrupt pianissimo single melodies (“I fear, I hope, I burn; I freeze again”). Cohen particularly gave me chills at the top of the melisma in the molto appassionato passage, one of my favorite passages in the piano literature.
Despite the wide range of expression in his playing, Cohen never performed with histrionic body gestures, nor with excessive rubato. What he mostly seemed to do was to let the music and the piano express itself naturally, and in this way he managed to avoid exaggeration while remaining true to the composer’s intentions. Such restraint and discipline was especially remarkable in his rendition of the Liszt Sonata, in which many pianists frivolously prolong delicate passages, or head-bang their way through the more technically difficult episodes. During the lyrical sections, Cohen actually pulled us ahead through phrases and seldom dawdled with rubato. Only in the third melisma of the Quasi Adagio section of the third movement did he play surprisingly slowly and patiently, despite this passage normally being played as a cascading flourish. During the energetic passages, Cohen displayed a different kind of restraint, executing even the most strenuous difficulties with calm and ease. Each time the piano produced a torrent of bloodthirsty rage, Cohen’s face showed no hint of strain or furor. My jaw dropped when he played the rapid left-hand ascending octave scales flawlessly as though they were a walk-in-the-park.
Cohen then pulled out all the stops in the fourth movement of the Sonata, building up to the Sempre forte ed agitato passage with clockwork fury, and winding down to the final quiet Lento assai ending. After the audience showered him with applause and demanded an encore, he returned to toss off with elegant charm the light and upbeat Chopin Waltz in D flat major Op. 64, No. 1 – the so called “Minute Waltz.”