With his signature encore, his idiosyncratic rendition of Scott Joplin’s stride-jazz piece “The Entertainer,” pianist Jon Nakamatsu had responded to a cheering, thoroughly enthusiastic audience on Saturday, September 21, at the McAfee Performing Arts and Lecture Center in Saratoga. This season-opening recital for the Steinway Society, the Bay Area’s 25th season also served as a Memorial Concert for Frieda Ann Murphy, a distinguished member of the Music Teachers’ Association of California.
Jon Nakamatsu remains an audience favorite as a pianist and spokesperson for music who enjoys an easy rapport with his audience. Since his approach to the music he champions nicely balances bravura and judicious taste, his choice of six impromptus to grace the first half of his concert testified to his sense of spontaneity and refreshment — standard fare in a classical recital by Nakamatsu. Two Chopin impromptus, A-flat Major, Op. 29 (1837) and G-flat Major, Op. 51 (1842), opened the program. The fleet triplets in the outer sections of Op. 29 posed no real challenge to Nakamatsu, and the noble F Minor middle section quickly reminded us that Chopin sought to make the piano a singing instrument. The more angular G-flat Impromptu contained poetry within its own gifts: presto triplets, subtle, passing dissonances, duet progression in thirds and sixths, and a dark cantilena middle section in the seemingly remote key of E-flat Minor. Nakamatsu kept the fluid motion of both pieces palpable and invisible, at once.
Nakamatsu then presented the Four Impromptus, D. 899 (1827) of Franz Schubert, which, Nakamatsu intimated, might be perceived as a compact sonata. Schubert had been impressed with the apparently spontaneous genre composed by Bohemian Jan Vorisek in 1822. After a sonorous, declamatory chord, the C Minor Impromptu set a martial tone in unaccompanied notes that soon found lyrical harmonization in double variation form, so the effect became both songlike and dramatic. The virtuosic element in Schubert makes its claim in the E-flat Major Impromptu, which kept Nakamatsu’s hands occupied with relentless chains of triplets, much in the manner of a Chopin etude. Its middle section hinted at the composer’s own sense of Sturm und Drang, declaiming a four-beat tattoo not so distant from Beethoven’s notion of “fate.” The popular G-flat Major Impromptu, here played as written with the requisite flats, proffered a pure, taut arioso of supple power and sustained pulse, without any concession to cliché or sentimentality. Lastly, the A-flat Major Impromptu, made immortal to this reviewer via the hands of Artur Schnabel, had Nakamatsu gliding brilliantly through cascades of 16ths, while the left hand proclaimed short, staccato eighths. The so-called “cello melody” appeared as a waltz in the left hand. The middle section, in C-sharp Minor, added a gravitas we associate with Schubert’s last days; and the manipulation of the E-flat had kept us on a tightrope between major and minor that, at the last, cedes to the major, optimistic finale under Nakamatsu’s decisive delivery.
The second half of the recital, devoted to the early (1853) Sonata No. 1 in C Major, Op. 1 of Brahms, kindled our interest in the composer’s infatuation with his idols, Beethoven and Schumann. At the very outset, 4/4 Allegro, Brahms makes his dramatic affinity with Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata obvious. Exclamatory, bombastic, occasionally convulsive, the piece certainly announces the talent and ambition of a twenty-year-old German composer eager to strut both a formidable technique and a learned style. The second movement, a theme-and-variations, had Nakamatsu negotiating the composer’s ubiquitous penchant for agogic, metric shifts. The last of the variants gave us the warm Brahms whose expression in thirds and sixths literally define his style. The third movement gave us a rare Scherzo, one of the few such forms (especially after the independent Op. 4) in the composer’s output. This one, in E Minor, featured Nakamatsu’s low bass tones and rising scale figures in octaves, in E Minor and G Major. The music projected a rare fury in Brahms, moving feroce, even triple forte marked molto pesante, heavily syncopated with jabbing accents. If we did not know the music to belong to Brahms, we might venture Richard Strauss as the author. Nakamatsu ran through the music’s potent meanderings with controlled chaos, literally strepitoso, at the E Minor arpeggio that left us in no-man’s land. The finale of this wild sonata takes on a cyclic turn, ushering in elements of the first movement while moving as a rondo in both 9/8 and 6/8 meters. Its episodic structure reminds us of Schumann, who likes to interrupt his fast movements with a pair of trios. Brahms inserts a kind of “Scottish” motif in F that Nakamatsu made sing, even in the midst of exuberant, emotional emphasis. It was all youth, refreshed, assertive, self-indulgent, and eminently talented.