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Miracles at Hotchkiss

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jan 20th, 2018

Pianist Leonel Morales at Elfers Hall

On Friday evening at Hotchkiss Elfers Hall, Cuban pianist Leonel Morales offered a solo program which Fabio Witkowski in his introduction characterized as “pillars of the piano”—three of the most illustrious works of the piano repertoire were performed. Morales has toured with many international orchestras, including the Spanish National Orchestra.

Beethoven’s early “Moonlight” sonata remains a Romantic icon. While its solemn funereal opening may conjure an imaginary moon over a lake to some inebriated, insomniac dilettantes, Liszt singled out the following Allegretto as “a flower between two abysses” before the impassioned Presto that appears to climax in melancholic madness, a furioso which Berlioz declared beyond the descriptive bounds of human language. Morales performed with poetic intensity yet never veered into the sentimental temptation that the first movement offers to some pianists. Musically speaking, this sonata is the most popular meditation on death ever presented. That Beethoven could transform a meditation on the brevity of life into a popular work is a wonder that I struggle to comprehend, but in the Romantic era death was everywhere and life was significantly shorter.

The lightness of the Italian piano on which he was performing was especially effective in the first and second movements, but the third movement really demanded the more solid gravitas of an excellent Steinway. Nonetheless, the performance Morales provided was stunning, not only in the fluidity of his fingering but in the precise pressure of the piano keys as his fingers flew through rapid pacing with hand crossings. Morales played with authority, grace, and the passionate intensity Beethoven demands without adding any personal flourishes (as some pianists, in a desperate grab for originality, sometimes do).

With the 1804 “Waldstein” sonata Beethoven moved beyond the boundaries of traditional keyboard composition to create sonorities and textures never heard before, some of this due to the delicate blurring role of the pedal, but more importantly by technical demands beyond most pianists. The dominant melodic refrain is so haunting that one might be tempted to let it run lyric circles in your head for days on end. Morales played as if the piano itself was an orchestra hurling out festoons of riotous color while maintaining a discipline that a general would envy as the audience was transported into the Musical Otherworld. This was not illusory seduction but a meta-reality where time operated with new laws abolishing the temptation of boredom. “Waldstein” usually concludes a concert because it appears that anything performed after it must be an anti-climactic afterthought. Yet more followed without intermission….

One way of dealing with a climax is to offer some comedy as a desert. Ravel had been inspired by the prose poems of Aloysius Bertrand (1807-41) to provide a program. Bertrand was known for his posthumous poetry of fantastical whimsy, Gaspard de la nuit. The “Ondine” and “Scarbo” narratives were performed with prefatory poem translations ably read by poet Barbara Kingsolver; the lyrics offered valuable background for understanding Ravel’s whimsy and humor, which was delightful.

And then there was the third “pillar:” Franz Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole (1869). Inspired by his tour of Spain and Portugal in 1854, with the ghost of Beethoven whispering in his ear, Liszt employed some Spanish melodies at pell-mell speed with rapid chords and leaping octaves, including blind octaves (a Liszt invention) which offer alternate doubling, above and below. The fury of the opening cadenza never wavers or relents. This is Liszt in his most ambitious conceit: to make the piano not merely an impressive solo instrument, but to transform the piano into a marvel of wonder, an instrument of the gods, a religious monstrance of wonder that would make him the secular Pope of music.

While Liszt preached the gospel of Chopin throughout Europe, he wished his own compositions to be the Christos to Beethoven’s prophetic role as the Romantic John the Baptist. Oddly, Liszt’s wonderful religious music is rarely played today. In Elfers Hall at the dazzling fingertips of Morales (who played everything from memory), we worshiped the secular high priest of Romantic Genius who could annihilate nationalistic borders with a mere cadenza or warp time with the dexterity of an astro-nuclear physicist by an arpeggio run. Morales owns this Rhapsodie and if you are ever availed of the opportunity to hear him play it, then drop all plans and find a seat before this great master of the piano. (A video of Morales playing Rachmaninoff appears below.)