Although we only heard two composers, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, comprising the Steinway Society’s concert on October 27 at San Jose’s Hammer Theater, the soloist, Ukrainian-American pianist Anna Dmytrenko, instilled a glorious array of subtle color into her performance and achieved that rare combination of virtuosity, poetry, and intellect that results in artistic musicianship of the highest order. Add to this the beautifully-selected program selections: (Rachmaninoff’s 1931 Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42, the first five of his 1903 Preludes from Op. 23, Beethoven’s Andante Favori, WoO 57 (1803) and his massive Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111 (1822) plus the sheer beauty of tone available to Dmytrenko courtesy of the Steinway concert grand at her disposal, and the success of the afternoon became a fait accompli.
Dmytrenko began with Rachmaninoff’s heady set of variations on La Folia, a Portuguese folk tune often attributed to Corelli, and subsequently utilized by such luminaries as Liszt and Glinka for “national,” Spanish compositions. In this, his last major opus for solo piano, Rachmaninoff sets his variants in two distinct parts. Those from the main theme in D Minor through Variation 13 assume the proportions of a sonata movement. The music then proceeds from an Intermezzo to restate the theme in the major mode with the energy of the two succeeding episodes enlarged at No. 15 and finally catapulted to a frightening intensity in Variation 20. At moments, we could hear the influence of Schumann, likely from Symphonic Variations. The finale seems drained of visceral power, enervated in remorse and bleak nostalgia, the coda chromatic, but set in shades of gray, in the manner of Debussy’s grisailles. Dmytrenko exploited the music’s capacities for color and muscular power. Her hands easily fashioned themselves into the wide-spanned Rachmaninoff mold They seemed quite capable of spanning 10ths with no evidence of awkward wrist extension.
More aspects of the Dmytrenko arsenal emerged in the five Preludes, Op. 23, whose emotional palette spans degrees of intimacy to grand, Russian bells and religious doxology, martial evocations and spaciously aggrandized visions of an idyllic world. If the Prelude in F-sharp Minor elicited quiet, coloristic intimacy, the succeeding Prelude in B-flat thrust itself upon us, Blake’s Tyger. The most ironical of the set, that in D Minor marked Tempo di Menuetto, soon shed its polite, salon clothes and ambled and aroused us in the guise of a Cossack dance. No. 4 in D Major, lusciously combined nocturnal elements with subtle variations, in a most plastic account by Dmytrenko, reminiscent – as were they all – less of Chopin’s example in his preludes than in his etudes. The last of the set, the G Minor, set our collective toes and heels tapping in cadence with a hearty march whose middle section dissolves into erotic sixths. This fine Rachmaninoff group had Dmytrenko accept two lengthy bouts of applause.
Beethoven presented himself to us in two of his personae: in the relaxed, Viennese mode and of the salon, in his Andante Favori in F Major, and in his ever-startling, fearsome Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111. The former piece, originally set as the middle movement of the Waldstein Sonata No. 21 in C, Op. 53, appeared too vast for that context, so Beethoven recast this charming set of rondo-variants as a separate entity for his own delectation at the keyboard. Lyrical, eminently charmed, the music offered ever-subtle nuances of color, and even moments of humor in Beethoven’s occasional deceptive cadences. Dmytrenko’s fondness for the score pervaded every measure, and we felt in this Beethoven a capacity for grace and affection.
Perhaps “fearsome” is an inappropriate epithet for the Op. 111, though it towers over the entire piano tradition, given how few master pianists – particularly in the Romantic era – conceived more than three sonatas in their oeuvre. The work sums up Beethoven’s approach to the piano sonata form as a means of experimentation and trial. In an unorthodox two movements, the work contrasts an aggressive, broadly noble Maestoso juxtaposed against an Arietta and five variations. Here, Dmytrenko had to finesse a series of colors and degrees of pearly play, massive chordal sonority and evanescent effects, especially since Beethoven achieves what Alexander Scriabin would have characterized as the “liberation” of the trill as an expressive gesture.The opening three-note motif from Dmytrenko announced in no uncertain terms the gravitas of her temper and the driven quality of her vision. Her capacity for layering (“stretto”) and contrapuntal, textural clarity in the midst of Beethoven’s permutations of his motto both alarmed and arrested us. Pregnant pauses became as musical as sound. So, too, in the course of the Arietta’s transformations, single notes, double notes, ties, mordants, and even pedal tones assumed the power of Melody. Janus-like, the music pulverized the materials into basic constituents while the harmonic motion already alerted us to aspects of Schoenberg, Webern, and the so-called “atonalists.” We rose as one after a prolonged fermata, to acknowledge Dmytrenko’s having reminded us that Beethoven transcends music, offering a cosmic solace to those with open ears and open hearts.
Dmytrenko’s one encore, the Brahms A Major Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2, compressed this composer’s “old bachelor” consolations into those rainy-day, drooping gestures, where even the mortal coil relents and allows us a moment to ourselves.