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Four Hands, Six Fingers at Hotchkiss

Cuban-Russian pianism
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jan 31st, 2016

Leonel Morales

The Hotchkiss School, famous for its music program, both in-house and abroad, as well as its concert programs, has recently been showcasing fabulous Russian pianism. Cuban-born Leonel Morales elegantly graced and alternatively dug, swept, or thrashed the delicate Italian piano last Saturday night in such a moving performance that I feel reduced to pounding out clichés on my laptop keyboard. The combination of intellectual architecture, sophisticated interpretation, and inspired performance was well beyond the paltry compliments that words can, at their best, bestow: astonishment, incredulity, rapture ravished the evening.

Opening with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, op. 101, Morales captured and dramatized the contrapuntal dilemma of the sonata with a lyrical delicacy that offered revelation rather than statement. A quizzical elegance lingered in the air beyond the usual gravitas of traditional interpretation. I thought that this was the first time I had heard the beating heart of the sonata and the composer.

But this apparently was just an audience warm-up. What followed without interruption was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Six Moments Musicaux, op. 16. Knotty and elegant, meditative and obsessive, airy and plumbing lower depths, it was as if the piano itself was being tested by the composer—as to whether it was fit company for his restless moods. The third movement, an Andante cantabile, was positively haunting in its disturbing sharps. After the dazzling Presto, the sincerity of the Adagio sostenuto swept me out to sea. The concluding Maestoso produced ecstasy.

But that, too, was mere warm-up. Morales attacked Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka, performing three movements. Stravinsky first began Petrushka on piano as a concert piece for piano and orchestra. The piano solo in the Second Tableau was the first music composed. In the 1911 orchestral version the piano was employed sparingly in the First of the four tableaux, not at all in the Third, and minimally in the Fourth.

The piano version of the first three tableaux played by Morales attempted and succeeded in going beyond an orchestral version, in which the piano itself represents the soul of the character Petrushka in the ballet. Although the abstraction presented by Morales, moved the piece backward to fin de siècle art for art’s sake sensibility, the bravura performance remained an intoxication that was spellbinding as it poured out the distressing cornucopia of Petrushka’s emotions on the concert floor all around us at the Katherine M. Elfers Hall while Morales appeared to have four hands of six fingers as they blurred in rapid movement with emotional retention.

After two long-standing ovations by aged upright enthusiasts, Morales offered his version of “Malaguena” that noted tour-de-force dance music with flamenco roots that continually remains open to the interpretation of a performer in terms of pacing, key, and sentiment. This, too, was another revelation in an evening of continuous revelations.