Yesterday afternoon we had the distinct pleasure of hearing pianist Misuzu Tanaka in a brilliant recital at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist in Aptos. This event was presented jointly by St. John’s and the Aptos Keyboard Series, a series founded by composer-pianist Josef Sekon. Sekon has the knack of finding interesting young artists and persuading them to come and perform for intimate audiences on the series’ new Kawai 7’6” grand piano, an instrument that made its debut only a few months earlier.
Juilliard trained Tanaka had chosen a program that contained two seldom heard works by Leoš Janáček, and we are the richer for having heard them on this occasion. She performed two movements from Janáček’s Sonata No. 1 (1905), which turned out to be attractive and accessible, plus they sounded quite idiomatic for the piano. Tanaka caressed the opening motifs that established the tonal center of e-flat minor and held our attention throughout the work’s lovely melodic development tinged with moments of chromaticism. Not being familiar with traditional folk melodies from Bohemia, I was unable to relate to the specific melodic and folklore elements that inspired this work, but suffice it to say that Tanaka’s lovely sound and skill in shaping melodic elements captured our attention and held us spellbound throughout.
The second work she performed by Janáček, V mlhách (In the Mists), revealed the influence of Debussy and was even more impressive than the earlier Sonata No. 1. Fragmented elements of romanticism and impressionism mingled in the first three movements, while the final Presto generated considerable excitement. Tanaka imbued this work with charm and impressed us with her masterful performance that made us want to hear it again.
Her program began with a brilliant performance of Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in D Major, BWV 874, from WTC Book II. Her playing achieved lovely clarity and excitement in the Prelude and kept us enthralled in the themes and episodes of the Fugue. She avoided the fussy staccatos of Glenn Gould and the breakneck tempos of Pogorelich and in the process gave us a performance that was as solid as it was satisfying.
Another seldom heard work on the program was Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Although I learned this work myself fifty years ago, Tanaka’s performance was the first time I had ever heard it performed live on a concert program. Tanaka led us through the work’s considerable charms and astonished us with her technical mastery that made even the most daunting passages sound easy under her fingers. Her lovely quiet ending of the work was a moment of considerable magic. This performance made us want to hear Tanaka perform more of Rachmaninoff’s works for solo piano, for it is obvious that she has a special affinity for this great and sometimes neglected composer.
Tanaka ended her recital with a tremendously moving performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 14. She kept us enthralled throughout the lyricism of the first and third movements, and then blew us away with her masterful playing of the Scherzo and final Vivace. This is the way Prokofiev should be played.
Responding to a standing ovation. Tanaka rewarded us with one encore – Beethoven’s amusing “Rage over a Lost Penny.” I had forgotten how much fun this piece is, and Tanaka played it to the hilt.
I am confident that Tanaka will be returning sometime in the not-too-distant future. We will welcome her with open arms. Brava!