The San Francisco Bay Area seems to have become a mecca for keyboard talent of the first rank, as witnessed by the recent spectacular appearance of Argentine pianist Nelson Goerner at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, on Monday, April 15, under the auspices of Chamber Music San Francisco. Goerner presented to us a brilliant, architecturally balanced program of works from the Romantic era. His performances of Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin demonstrated his tonal and technical mastery in often seamless fluency, but more importantly extended the often salon-like sentiments of Brahms, Schumann, and Chopin into transcendent, epic visions of poignant, lyrical drama.
Goerner opened his recital with the 1893 Vier Klavierstücke, Op. 119 of Johannes Brahms, his final entry into subjective keyboard expression. The Intermezzo in B Minor, a string of falling thirds set in hesitant, drooping figures, offered that gray, harmonic world close to what Schoenberg would exploit some 15 years later. Stately, refined, lilting toward a tragic stance, this music lingered in a vague limbo between B Minor and D Major, almost a forecast of Debussy. The pearly Fantasie that followed became somewhat more solid in the E Minor Intermezzo, set in duple rhythm in nervous pulsation, repeating notes whose impulse to lift us seemed frustrated, although its central waltz section in the major mode offered solace. The popular C Major Intermezzo enjoyed a deftly detached vocal line from Goerner, its 6/8 motion soon vanishing into a soft mist. Brahms reverts to his Hungarian style in the E-flat Major Rhapsody, rather a soft version of what could become a percussive exercise. In 2/4, the piece moves in five-bar phrases whose repeated periods permit it a classical poise. Goerner segued smoothly into C Minor, the secondary theme in triplet meter. The piece may enter into a parody of the salon style – the way the main theme disintegrates in the coda – but Goerner held us in thrall through the sheer concentration he bestowed on his rich colors.
Though many members of the audience might consider the second half of Goerner’s recital as the main event, few could dispute the sheer, organic power of his performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. “The perfect execution of a mighty and colossal plan,” claimed Carl Czerny of this 1804 sonata that soon became the composer’s favorite, showing off his Erard instrument, which had attained five-and-one-half octaves. The unabashed intensity of the piece embraces the full gamut of the keyboard – including the lowest F – as well the emotional throes, often in the Neapolitan harmony of the flattened second degree of the scale — that suddenly catapult us to a preconceived, tumultuous end, as suggested by the “fate” motif we know from the Fifth Symphony. The entire performance by Goerner enjoyed a unity of effect that never obscured or distorted the fine lines, especially in those moments when Beethoven permits us a singing impulse. The second movement theme and variations, emergent from bare chords no less extended the outlines of a theme or motive into a luxurious celebration of the keyboard’s non-percussive faculties: at least, until the huge diminished seventh chord heralded the eddies of the Allegro ma non troppo – Presto last movement. Now, in its hail of 16th notes, the music beckoned us to an uncanny gypsy dance, ever more passionate and inflamed. With never a false gesture, a thespian grimace or a self-directed flourish, Goerner realized Beethoven’s vast canvas with sense of passionate craft not soon to be forgotten by anyone present.
Goerner’s second half first brought us two sides of Schumann –- and not merely his poetic psyche of Florestan and Eusebius, his aggressive and feminine impulses –- but also the salon Schumann and the demonic virtuoso. Based on the Flegeljahre (Years of Indiscretion) of Jean-Paul Richter, the polonaises and waltzes of Papillons, Op. 2, pay homage to Schubert while dramatizing the last scene of Richter’s novel, a masked ball, which includes the “dance of the larvae” or “dance of the masks.” Goerner approached the individual dances with a directness and authority that lent power as well as poetry to their flirtatious utterance. Continuity of line and pulse as well as consistency of character marked Goerner’s rendition, in which passing dissonances, chromatic lines, and brief counterpoints (in canon) infiltrated what might otherwise have passed as romantic conceits and roulades. The last section, enamored by Tchaikovsky, gave us an old Grossvaterlied, a grandfather’s song, that requires a pedal D for 26 bars before the music dissolves, note by note as the lateness of the hour ticks away.
Goerner then switched to the 1829 “touch piece,” Schumann’s grueling Toccata in C Major, Op. 7. A moto perpetuo in sonata-form, the music tests almost every aspect of the physical ability to perform on the instrument, especially the wrist and forearm. Somehow, amidst the welter of movement and repeated notes, a melody fights its way upward in the form of a march or Märchen, one of the composer’s many attempts at dream-life in the form of a militant campaign against conformity. Goerner spun off this work’s daunting challenges with barely a flutter, without strain, at perfect peace with a moment of titanic challenge.
The remainder of this eminently rewarding recital devoted itself to a Chopin group: Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1; Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 55, No. 2, and the Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante in E-flat, Op. 22. The darkly fateful C Minor Nocturne of 1841 seemed appropriate for the colossal mishap at Notre Dame Cathedral, a tragic commentary on the vicissitudes of fortune and the ephemerality of all human projects. The E-flat Major Nocturne confronts us with Chopin’s idiosyncratic polyphony, — in Goerner’s hands an uninterrupted exchange of lyrically passionate ideas. The luxurious beauty of Goerner’s triplet figures awed and delighted us. Then, again without the intrusion of applause, he entered into the Andante spianato, whose stop-on-a-dime pulsations hovered between nocturne and ballade, moving semplice, without pedal, and prone to lie suspended in space with its semi-martial melody calling from afar. Then the Grande polonaise burst forth becoming a ballroom dance in the form of rondo with a reprise in flowing variations. Verve and national fervor marked Goerner’s reading, and the sheer elegance of tone reminded this auditor of another keyboard aristocrat, Mieczysław Horszowski. With the one encore, the C-sharp Minor Nocturne, Op. posth., with its adumbration of the F Minor Concerto, we bade farewell to Nelson Goerner, who had made an indelible impression on our aesthetic consciousness.