Despite the venue challenges the Bay Area Steinway Series has experienced, it continues to present many of the world’s most impressive keyboard artists as witnessed by the December 8 performance by Albert Cano Smit at the West Valley College in Saratoga. Although Swiss-born Albert Cano Smit won his first international competition at age 14 , it was his winning First Prize in the 2017 Naumburg Competition that sent up the red flag of special attention.
Smit’s program awareness in Sunday’s concert displayed his understanding of what a creative selection entails. The concert opened with J. S. Bach’s Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother, BWV 992. The meditative approach to the entire six movements was spiritual and carried through in the excellent dynamic control and variety of tonal inflections.
Brother Jacob’s imminent departure is lamented and designated Adagissimo. The form is a Passacaglia and requires the performer to fill in the figured bass, a common practice of the time. The work ends with a fugue combining two motives that suggest trumpets with the counter subject imitating a post horn. Smit’s fugal rendering was excellent with each of the four fugal entries clearly projected dynamically.
The second work was Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Op. 16, composed in a passionate outpouring of inspiration in just four days in April 1838. Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana remains one of the cornerstones of the romantic solo piano repertoire. The eight fantasy-like pieces that constitute the work were inspired by a fictional musician created by the great Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Schumann was an avid reader, and Hoffmann’s writings fueled his imagination and inspiration.
Within the eight separate pieces, there is a stream of contrasting sections, perhaps resembling the imaginary musician’s manic depression recalling Schumann’s own Florestan and Eusebius, the two fictional characters he used to symbolize his own contrasting, impulsive, dreamy sides. The eight sections moods vary from extremely agitated to fast and playful. Smit demonstrated impressive care over the shading of dynamics (from pp to ff), with clean attack and clear inner voicing. Smit’s rapid lines seemed to float above the piano creating impressive textures with left hand punctuations appropriately administered. This performance portrayed a dedicated keyboard artist at work!
Just prior to the second half, Smit walked to the microphone and made a small program adjustment that proved to be monumental. Rather than performing two selections from Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Smit decided to pair No. XV, Le baiser de l’enfant Jesus (The Kiss of Baby Jesus) with Étude No. 13, L’escalier du diable by Hungarian composer György Ligeti. Both composers knew from first hand experience the horrors of WWII.
Smit performed the Messiean with outstanding sensitivity and revealed himself to be a pianist with exceptional gifts. His command of sonority was outstanding as was his ability to realize Messiaen’s concept about the ‘colour’ of particular chords. He also revealed a remarkable dynamic range that provided clarity and a tremendous climax in the virtuoso quasi-fugal textures. It was a marvelous performance!
Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 1 followed and displayed Smit’s liquid phrasing and variety of articulation. The lyricism was touching and sincere portraying wonderful delicacy. Very well done!
Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 83 (1939 – 1942) rounded off the concert and set again another composer who experienced the devastation WWII brought to Europe. The work is set in the middle of the three “War Sonatas” and one could feel the mighty “Red Army” on the march. The movements are designated Allegro inquieto – Andantino, Andante caloroso and Precipitato.
Throughout the three movements Smit’s seemingly inexhaustible, astonishing facility spun off Prokofiev’s challenges with scintillating presence. The balance between percussion and the singing quality of the Andantino was well distinguished. The moments of intense chordal weightiness of the Precipitato movement alluded to the abstract notion of white heat when the world is burning around you. The dynamic range was quite impressive and very effective.
The encore was Scriabin’s (1872-1915) Poem no. 1. Against the amazing backgrounds of the previous works, this was the excellent touch of departure.