There are so many ways to build a concert program, from very traditional to innovative. Pianist Peter Tóth offered a program of seven great historical keyboard composers while choosing some of the less well-known works by those composers along with a dose of more familiar pieces. The diverse programming was effective, offered by The Distinguished Artists Series at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz on November 3.
The first half of the program was more classical, emphasizing the expressive use of the piano, while the pieces following intermission explored more dramatic and heavier sonorities. Three of the selections were in the theme and variations form, a favorite of composers for centuries. Handel’s Chaconne in G was the first of these, with an eight-bar theme consisting of a chord progression, followed by an array of twenty-one colorful variations that make use of the keyboard techniques of the 18th century. Tóth’s majestic opening with colorful ornamentation contrasted with expressive delicacy in the middle section, creating a gentle and intimate mood.
A high point for this listener was the Sonata K. 311 by Mozart, played with sparkling energy, and with exciting precision in the rippling scale passages. The Impromptu in f minor by Schubert was notable for Tóth’s clarity of harmony, a feature that makes this piece so attractive. Beethoven’s Seven Variations of “God Save the King” is a rarity on a recital program. It’s familiar theme, known here as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Tóth’s reading was easy to follow through the variations, an excellent way for listeners to understand the compositional process.
A much heftier approach to variations was the ambitious work by Franz Liszt on a theme by J.S. Bach. The theme consists of six falling tones, descending chromatically in Bach’s signature depiction of death. The same motive is found in Bach’s Cantata 12, whose title might be translated as “Weeping, plaints, sorrows, fears.” It also appears as the Crucifixus movement of the Mass in B minor, a painting in tones depicting the death of Jesus. Liszt’s work was composed after the death of his daughter in 1862. Tóth made full use of the piano’s sonorities through the 43 variations, with a facility for making the most thunderous passages seem easy. The work concludes with the chorale “What God does is well-intentioned” from the same cantata 12, closing this monument to Bach with quiet meditation.
An effective contrast to the severity of Bach’s death motive was Bela Bartok’s 1916 Suite Op. 14, full of playful rhythms and catchy melodies. Of Hungarian origin, Tóth is comfortable with the composer’s music. He proved equally comfortable with Chopin’s Andante spianato and grande polonaise brillante. Tóth’s varied program offered a long look at historical piano expressions, with many gems of the repertoire seldom heard in recital.