On April 17, Misuzu Tanaka, concluding pianist in the always excellent Distinguished Artists Concert & Lecture Series 31st season, presented an appreciative audience with a fine final recital, much of it in quick tempo, by way of early Schumann, late Beethoven (along with his previous “Rage Over a lost Penny),” young 20th century Prokofiev with “new” music, and Rachmaninoff with his aching for old Russia even years before he fled. Tanaka is a very mature, sure performer, one who afterwards told series director John Orlando that playing at the magnificent Yamaha CFX concert grand here was like riding a sensitive race horse, lowering the reins a little, and letting the champion take over for a winning run. In preparation for our “sound ride” she has studied at Juilliard, in the Czech Republic, and with a performance degree from Michigan. And besides playing in large venues, she also graces small festivals like ours here.
The opening work, Schumann’s “ ‘Abegg’ Variations” from 1830, is one of the smitten 20 year old piano student’s musical love letters to the 12 year old daughter of his severe piano teacher. (Years later, Schumann would wed Clara Wieck, and amid their many children she would perform his works, and others, in the best concert halls). The opening theme is slow, dreamy and seductive, Tanaka’s sound lush; then the piece becomes intense and quick –almost like a seahorse scampering over the keys- followed by ethereal trilling. During the whole recital “Tanaka’s intensity was very trance-like, as if we the audience did not exist, except for always enthusiastic approval. And during the performance, the pianist was also visible live on two large TV screens set up on the altar, so audience members sitting to the rear could see fingers flying or lingering on the keys.
Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109” from 1820 is his second from last; it perfectly displays the “otherworldliness” of his late works, and our pianist made the most of this via gripping statement and nuances from the big piano, from the opening delicate “Vivace” with its single notes like butterfly wings, twice interrupted by a probing adagio. The short second movement is violent in sonata form, but with the deep spirituality not found in early efforts of sturm und stress banging, and the concluding sarabande theme and six variations, which Tanaka contrasted brilliantly, the increasing use of gossamer, effortless trills let up to a return to theme as conclusion. In great contrast was the same composer’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny (Rondo a Capriccioso in G Major, Op, 129” – actually an earlier work from the 1790’s, which is all delightfully showy surface. Imagine a young Beethoven out for a walk, strutting, cocky: then a bit of doubt as he looks into his pocket for the coin; then disbelief and confusion as he almost stops; followed by despair, which Tanaka might have shown more dolefully; but miraculously the penny turns up, the walker now continues, elated, as he sashays down the Ringstrasse in Vienna.
Now on to the Russians. We heard selections from Rachmaninoff’s “Preludes Op. 23” from 1903-04, continuing the tradition of Tchaikovsky, with great style and aplomb by our pianist, including the very famous “No. 5 in G Minor,” a quick march. Prokofiev was in his early 20’s in 1912 when he wrote his “Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 14,” this 20th century style very new sounding at times, and at others, like leaner versions of Rachmaninoff – or even Grieg- but always veering back to new forms of expressions, sometimes percussive, then playful, as in its “Scherzo,” a sleepwalking “Andante” dirge, concluded by a running dance in a sunny mood, all performed effortlessly. Misuzu Tanaka is definitely a Distinguished Artist we’d like to hear again.