Hungarian pianist Péter Tóth is no stranger to California audiences. He has appeared as concerto soloist performing Liszt’s Totentanz with the Palo Alto Philharmonic and several times in recital on the Monterey Peninsula at All Saints’ Church. The presenter of last evening’s recital at Carmel Presbyterian Church was Carmel pianist and teacher Barbara Ruzicka, who had heard Tóth in his dazzling San Francisco debut in 2007. Ruzicka felt a personal connection since Tóth had been the recipient of the Sari Biro Memorial Prize at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, and Ruzicka had been a piano pupil of the late Sari Biro in San Francisco almost thirty years ago.
That Tóth is a “virtuoso” there is never any doubt. He demonstrates a masterful command at the keyboard, and seemingly no technical difficulty in the piano repertoire presents a serious challenge to him. However, what we most admired about him is that he uses his virtuoso skills to serve the music he performs. On his program last night he performed an old hackneyed warhorse — Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (yes, the work that inspired a Bugs Bunny cartoon), and made it new and fresh again. He also performed a rarely heard Liszt work, the Ballade No. 2 in B Minor, and revealed it to be a masterpiece of subtlety and religious mystery that went far beyond its virtuoso Sturm und Drang moments.
Tóth opened his recital with a fine performance of Chopin’s Polonaise in, Op. 26, No. 1 in C-sharp Minor. Right from its opening flourishes, we heard a solidity of chords that revealed Tóth is a master at getting a full, rich fortissimo sonority without straining the piano’s capabilities. Throughout this Polonaise in its quieter moments, we heard lovingly-shaped cantabile playing that held us spellbound throughout. Just as satisfying was his performance of the three Chopin Nocturnes from Op. 15. The first two of these are familiar to audiences, but the third one in G Minor is rarely heard in live concerts. Tóth made a convincing case for performing the three as a set by linking the contrasting lyrical and poetic spirit of the three Nocturnes and somehow making the performance totally convincing
After intermission Tóth again presented another case of linking contrasting elements by performing in its entirely Liszt’s second cycle of the Anneés de pèlerinage, premiere année, Suisse, a series of musical postcards inspired by Liszt’s years of wandering. It is significant that last week on the Monterey Peninsula we heard a concert, whose program consisted of only one work, Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” a masterpiece that had a duration of approximately 50 minutes. Last night we heard a long Liszt cycle, which also had a duration of approximately 50 minutes. This poses the question: is such a long work too much for an audience to absorb as the second half of a program?
There were undeniably many charming moments, and two sections stood out above the rest: Au bord d’une source (by the side of a spring) and Vallée d’Obermann (the Obermann Valley). The bubbling sounds of the spring are most effective and were charmingly played. The almost Wagnerian grandeur of the Vallée d’Obermann (it alone has a duration of about fifteen minutes), received a magnificent and absorbing performance. However, the length of the program this late in the evening began to takes its toll, and I found my attention span wandering.
I wished that Tóth had designed the second half of the program around the Trois Etudes de Concert and Tre sonetti di Petrarca — combined, also a duration of about 45-50 minutes. Now that would have been a superb program! Well, perhaps at Mr. Tóth’s next appearance on the Monterey Peninsula, and I am sure there will be one, perhaps we will have our wish granted.
In any case, the audience responded warmly to Tóth’s superb playing and was rewarded with one encore: Bartók’s Three Hungarian Dances.