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Leonel Morales Astonishes at Hotchkiss School

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jan 18th, 2020

Leonel Morales at Hotchkiss Elfers Hall

Famed international pianist Leonel Morales played at Hotchkiss School’s Elfers Auditorium this past frigid Friday night to an enthusiastic audience. Introduced by Music Director and noted pianist Fabio Witkowski, Morales opened with Sonata in A minor, K. 310 by Mozart. Composed in the summer of 1778 in Paris as a commemoration of his mother’s death, this tragic memento opens with anguished bass notes. This piece is often considered to be Mozart’s greatest solo piano work. Morales captured the anguish and the search for lyric consolation yet the slightly higher, lighter sound of the Fazioli 308 Grand Concert piano impeded pathos. Morales was fluidly expert at capturing the manic lyric melodies that float through the piece as tempting distractions. I would have liked to have heard this work with the gravitas that a Steinway piano can produce.

Likewise, it remains difficult to play Beethoven’s great sonatas on this sparkling Italian piano, which is brilliantly suited to lighter, impressionistic music. Morales played Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, nicknamed “Appassionata.” Morales embodied the restrained urgency of the work with lightning dexterity, yet the piano was not capable of Beethoven’s darker moments of thunder. This was a bravura performance of intricate dexterity; the performer was up to a superb performance, but he was riding a nervous youngster down the stretch of a famous derby, instead of a mature champion whose hoofbeats echo on the racetrack. The cooler temperature of the room may have contributed to this effect, yet the performance by Morales was breathtaking, dazzling, august.

After a brief intermission, Morales performed Rachmaninoff’s Six Moments Musicaux, Op. 16, written after his First Symphony. Considered to be Rachmaninoff’s first great work (1896), it combines traditional forms with impressionistic, lyric excursions. Here the piano responded wonderfully to the virtuoso technique that the composition demands amid much cross-handed playing and changing time signatures. The rushing passagework of No. 2 was a showpiece for Rachmaninoff that none could equal in his lifetime and I wish that Rachmaninoff was in the audience to hear his equal flying over the keys with dazzling clarity. The lulling, hypnotic quality of No. 3 conjured Scriabin while announcing a composer who would go beyond Scriabin. The 1/16th notes of No. 4 offered extravagant dynamics, abrupt shifts of mood that Morales nailed with fury. No. 5 pitted a single voice against triplet accompaniment, as if Rachmaninoff was arguing with three critics. No. 6, noted for prefiguring Rachmaninoff’s latter style, provided sharp reversals, concluding with memorable crashing chords. Morales delivered a fabulous performance as he went far beyond Ruth Laredo’s noted recording of this composition.

Islamey by Mily Balakirev, an 1869 Oriental fantasy, is one of the most famous showpieces for virtuoso pianists. Even Balakirev, a famous pianist, admitted that he couldn’t play the work properly. Scriabin damaged a hand while attempting to master this piece. A favorite showpiece of Franz Liszt, Mikhail Pletnev, and Igo Pogorelić, Morales not only played an immensely difficult version with seemingly effortless ease, but conjured that fleeting feeling of life’s passing that some virtuosos fail to capture amid the rapid, hurtling pace.

For encore, Morales played Ravel’s Bolero. A reporter once said to Ravel that Bolero was his most famous work. Ravel grew morose, replying “Alas, it is a work of orchestration, not music.” Yet Ravel first composed the piece on piano. It sounds better—lighter, humorous, mischievous, not taking itself seriously—on piano than from a boasting orchestra.

Morales is one of the great living virtuosos on the stage. It was remarkable that one could hear him at a free concert made possible by Hotchkiss School under Fabio Witkowski’s recruitment. A Hotchkiss Philharmonic Concert featuring Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Jean Sibelius’ Andante Festivo, and Antonio Vivaldi’s masterwork The Four Seasons with Brazilian violin virtuoso Daniel Guedes will be performed at Elfers Hall on February 27 at 7 pm. Yes, the concert is free and open to the public.