Pianist Jura Margulis returned to Hidden Valley last night and give us a glorious piano recital. His playing combined a richly rewarding blend of fascinating repertoire, masterful virtuosity and a richly conceived palette of expressive devices from the softest pianissimo whispers to the most roaring fortissimo climaxes. This was playing that grabbed us by the throat and held us captive for ninety minutes.
The most satisfying work on the program was the Brahms Sonata in F Minor, a five-movement tour de force that that was astonishing in its architectural grandeur. Right from the opening moments of the first movement we realized that we were about to be taken on an amazing journey. We heard bold dramatic gestures blended with beautifully shaped phrases and a controlled cantabile that made this sonata come alive with a vibrancy that made this performance one of the best I have ever heard. The two slow movements in this sonata exhibited the dramatic expressive longing that we often associate with Brahms youthful infatuation with Clara Schumann and were supremely effective. The lusty Scherzo made a powerful effect and the concluding finale was spectacular. The conclusion of this mighty performance brought the audience to its feet with well deserved and rousing bravos.
Another richly rewarding work on the program was an amazing performance of Scriabin’s Poeme, Op. 72, “Vers la Flamme,” in which Margulis plumbed the depths of the expressive and violent emotions in this work. At times it seemed as though Margulis was threatening to overpower the piano, but he always managed to maintain control and make us regret that this work only lasted six minutes. I didn’t want this performance to end.
In his introductory remarks to the audience, Margulis said that what we were hearing this evening was a recital of sonatas, for he suggested that we consider “Vers La Flamme” a one-movement sonata and an interesting contrast to the brief Scarlatti sonatas and the epic Brahms Sonata No. 3, which seems like a piano reduction of an enormous symphony that Brahms never got around to orchestrating.
Margulis praised Vladimir Horowitz for his historic Scarlatti recording that changed people’s attitudes toward the keyboard sonatas of Scarlatti. I lived in the Yale University community from 1951 to 1957, at an exciting time when the recent advances in recording techniques brought us the vinyl LP, which made it economically feasible for startup companies to record a wider breadth of music from the 18th century. All of a sudden smaller ensembles were recording works featuring reproductions of period instruments, and we began to hear a new catchword, HIP, meaning historically informed performances.
Harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick was on record in the early 1950s for suggesting that pianists “keep their cotton picking hands off the works of Scarlatti.” He said this with a smile, but he believed it, and secretly wanted to also leave the keyboard works of Bach to the harpsichordists. However, two recordings released in the mid 1950s stopped Kirkpatrick dead in his tracks and forced him to eat his own words — Glenn Gould’s remarkable performance of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and Horowitz’s recording of a group of 16 Scarlatti Sonatas. Both recordings were astonishing for their brilliance and fantastic clarity of expression. These two recordings are credited for making it respectable for pianists to play 18th century keyboard works with expressive effects only dreamed of by harpsichordists.
Curiously enough, although he praised Horowitz for his contribution to our awareness of the appropriateness of Scarlatti on the piano, Margulis’s own performance of the group of sonatas exhibited not the crystalline purity and clarity advanced by Horowitz, but rather a throwback to a more romantic age of excessive speed and over-pedaling — giving us more of a Scarlatti in the toccata style of Ernst von Dohnányi. However, Margulis still managed to make these sonatas expressive and as a legitimate alternative way to perform Scarlatti.
We are sure that Margulis will be returning once again next year, and as always it will be interesting to see what his choice of repertoire will be.