Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 19 in C minor is a sprawling, at times even rambling composition that takes a full half hour to spin out. Not even one of the world’s greatest living pianists, András Schiff, could complete it without some audience shuffling and coughing when he performed it at the Music Center at Strathmore in March.
But pianist Alon Goldstein had no such issue when he performed the same piece last Sunday in the Odeon Chamber Music Series in Falls Church. The rapt although admittedly more compact audience at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church emitted not a single cough or other momentary disturbance as Mr. Goldstein worked his way through the sonata.
His secret? A remarkably effective verbal introduction to the piece, presented by Mr. Goldstein with charming wit and absolutely no technical music terminology whatsoever.
With a disarming introductory joke that audience members should feel free to turn on their cell phones and text their friends during the Schubert sonata if they got restless, Mr. Goldstein then prepared the audience for the fact that the music occasionally seems to break off into odd byways. (Such as an almost comically aimless passage in which both hands seem to be independently lost in the woods between 4:00 and 4:30 of this video of the sonata.)
Mr. Goldstein’s insightful theory about Schubert is that while Schubert’s idol (and near-contemporary) Beethoven liked to surprise his listeners in his piano sonatas, Schubert wound up surprising himself during the course of his equivalent compositions. Mr. Goldstein used that device to invite the audience to create their own images of what Schubert was discovering throughout the sonata’s larger digressions. He invoked metaphors of nature, weather, romance and wanderlust as suggestive elements, a device that clearly worked for the audience as they listened for Schubert’s “surprise” revelations and insights.
Mr. Goldstein’s spoken introduction on Sunday is almost exactly matched by this terrific post he wrote earlier this year on his blog. It adds even more to the interest to know that Mr. Goldstein lives in Rockville and has a devoted local following – earlier this year he appeared with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – even as his career takes him around the country and the world, including back to his native Israel.
The Schubert performance itself was forceful and muscular – the sonata begins and ends on the same kind of crashing C minor chord that Beethoven often employed – but also filled with contrast among its melodic touch points, as Mr. Goldstein generates an enormous dynamic range in all of his playing.
The Schubert sonata was actually the post-intermission capstone to a very meaty recital. As if to make light of how difficult the entire program was, Mr. Goldstein interweaved the first half of the program with more of his gentle wisecracks and wisdom.
He opened the recital with another kind of nature fantasy from a suite of compositions by Franz Liszt known in English translation as the Years of Pilgrimage. The title of the specific piece he performed, “Obermann’s Valley,” is an imaginary rather than real reference to a Swiss valley based on the thoughts of a fictional character who is overwhelmed by his journey.
Liszt spares no pianistic trick all along the 88 keys to depict this scene. And before Mr. Goldstein played a second Liszt selection – a piano transcription of the final scene of the Richard Wagner opera Tristan und Isolde – Mr. Goldstein joked, “If Chopin wrote everything that is possible for the piano, then Liszt wrote everything that is impossible for the piano.”
That virtuoso theme continued with a fascinating set of three Etudes for piano written in 2012 by contemporary Israeli composer Avner Dorman. The first etude (or “study” or “exercise”) is a comical and leaping gallop around the piano meant to evoke the board game “Snakes and Ladders,” while the other two are called “Funeral March” (with advanced chord progressions that are both evocative and somewhat disturbing) and “Sundrops Over Windy Water.” Mr. Goldstein, a personal friend of the composer, said he had asked Mr. Dorman, “Are these three etudes for piano or against piano?”
But the composer, Mr. Dorman, must have taken some inspiration from an earlier Argentinian composer of comparable suites of short works, Alberto Ginastera. That’s something that must have occurred to some of the audience as well, as Mr. Goldstein ended the first half of the concert with Ginastera’s three Argentinian Dances from his Opus 2, composed at age 21 in 1937.
In particular, the ultra-entertaining third dance, entitled “Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy,” features rumbling rhythms expertly essayed by Mr. Goldstein. It’s something that has to be heard to be believed, and musical theater fans here at DCMetroTheaterArts should tell me if this ostensibly rural-inspired piece doesn’t remind you of the rumbling rhythms of Bernstein or Sondheim in urban shows like West Side Story or Company.
The Odeon Chamber Music Series in which Mr. Goldstein performed is something of a hidden gem. It’s not located in the historic center of Falls Church but in a post-World War II church tucked into a residential neighborhood. The series dates back 15 years from when St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church received the gift of a 7-foot Kawai grand piano. The just-announced 2015-2016 season features an innovative and varied set of performers, including a pianist from Spain, a marimba player from Japan, an American teenage flute prodigy, and Mr. Goldstein’s own trio – which includes cellist Amit Peled, who performed a historic concert earlier this year at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. The series is worth putting on your radar. I know it’s on mine.
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Pianist Alon Goldstein performed on Sunday, May 10, 2015 in the Odeon Chamber Music Series at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church – 3241 Brush Drive, in Falls Church, VA. For all future concerts by Mr. Goldstein, see his concert schedule. For future events in the Odeon Chamber Music Series, see their performance schedule.