Yesterday afternoon pianist Orion Weiss opened the Carmel Music Society’s 2017-2018 season with an absorbing and tremendously satisfying piano recital. It was not so much his virtuosity that impressed us, but rather that his playing was so natural and inevitable that his virtuosity totally served the music, brought out the best in it, and in the process took us on an amazing journey.
The opening work on the program, Edvard Grieg’s Ballade, Op. 24, is so rarely performed that most of us in the audience (even pianists) were hearing it for the first time. Although in name a “Ballade,” it is actually 14 variations on a melancholy Norwegian folksong and is Grieg’s most ambitious and difficult work for solo piano. During its sixteen-minute duration, Weiss managed to charm us with its mysterious beauties, while overcoming thorny technical difficulties, complicated harmonic language and the work’s intrinsic dark nature.
The second work on the program was supposed to be Schubert’s Sonata in G Major, D.894, however, Weiss speaking from the stage, announced that he had arranged for us a kind of “sonata substitute” in which we were to hear a musical sandwich consisting of Chopin’s Third and Fourth Ballades separated in the middle by one of Franz Liszt’s early compositions, “The Bells of Geneva” from his Album d’un voyageur. Happy to be spared Schubert’s overly long Sonata (40 to 45 minutes in duration), we also discovered that this substitution turned out to be one of the most magical portions of the afternoon’s program. In the two Chopin Ballades, as familiar as they are to us, Weiss revealed an imaginative new approach. By marshaling his forces with great economy he utilized dynamic changes, appropriate tempos, and subtle phrasing so perfectly that we felt as though we were hearing these works for the first time. There was such a natural flow of musical events we were not aware of various elements being stitched together, but rather a continuous logical flow that seemed inevitable. The inclusion of Liszt’s “Bells of Geneva” made a logical and satisfying inner portion of the sandwich — beautiful playing that combined charm and technical wizardry while making it all look very easy.
After intermission, Weiss treated us to another rarely heard work, Schumann’s Waldszenen (forest scenes), a charming cycle of brief pieces with suggestive titles composed in 1849. This was Schumann’s last significant work for piano before mental illness resulted in his commitment to an asylum in 1854 and his death two years later. In this work, Weiss again revealed a subtle imaginative approach that drew us into the music and kept us riveted throughout the kaleidoscopic changing moods and images. Especially charming was the cryptic “Bird as Prophet” seeming to pose an unanswerable question. Perhaps inspired by some of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” Schumann gave us here an intimate cycle of works, that once again most people in the audience have probably never previously previously heard in live recital.
Ending this recital was a powerful performance of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, another cycle of imaginative pieces, but this time dedicated to the memory of friends lost during World War I. Once again, Weiss kept us riveted through contrasts of subtle imagery and exhilarating energy. He made the piano sing, and he made the piano dance. But, he did it all with such natural ease, it was easy to forget that he was even playing the piano at all, for it was the music that was reaching out to us and holding us in its grip. This was a very “up” experience.
In response to a prolonged standing ovation, Mr. Weiss honored us with one charming encore — a beautifully embellished performance of the Sarabande from Bach’s French Suite No. V in G Major. It was like a subtle blessing sending good thoughts to us as we were preparing to exit the hall.
However, the occasion was not over, yet. The Carmel Music Society held a reception in the lobby of Sunset Center where with wine and delectable goodies, we were able to mingle and meet Mr. Weiss in person. What a great way to spend a lovely and sunny Sunday afternoon.
[Note: Orion Weiss can be heard next weekend on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Monterey Symphony. Don’t miss it!]