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Oscar Rodriguez: Pianistic Virtuoso

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun May 5th, 2019

Oscar Rodriguez at Smithfield Church

The Bang Family Concert Series featured pianist Oscar Rodriguez at Smithfield Church in Amenia this past Saturday afternoon in a nineteenth century period concert on a 1866 Steinway grand tuned at 432Hz instead of the 440Hz upgrade that occurred in the 1920s. The music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, and Frederyk Chopin was played, as it would have sounded during the composers’ lifetime. And how it was played! Rodriguez was not only fluid with keys and the tempos of transition but imbued his performance with deep emotional coloring. Rodriguez played from memory.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110 remains a continual delight of the classical repertoire. Written when Beethoven became completely deaf and fell into prolonged illness, this sonata completed on Christmas Day, 1821, charts the depths of despair in the famous “Song of Lament” section and the eloquent hope of recovery, concluding with an ecstatic optimism despite anguished struggle, a healing optimism that delivers a contagious joy to those present in the audience when they hear a virtuoso performance such as the one Rodriguez performed.

Both contrapuntal and inflectionally expressive, the theme rises into the upper register with full chordal drama, as the left hand rolls 1/16th notes in the lower register. The sonata concludes with a circular pattern, recalling the opening movement’s theme in its cascading, concluding arpeggios. When T.S. Eliot wrote the line “the end is in the beginning,” he was merely articulating in words what Beethoven had invented in music. Rodriguez captured the agony and the ecstasy of Beethoven’s transcendental ruminations. I have heard this sonata performed several times over the past decade and this riveting performance is the one to most fondly recall.

Liszt’s Six Consolations were purportedly inspired by a Romantic stream of French lyric poetry from 1830 which combined religion and poetry, especially the poems of Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve and Alphonse de Lamartine. The six movements are a kind of poetic diary of a week, resting on the seventh day. Rodriguez said that these works present a foreshadowing of Liszt’s late obsession with religious composition. There is variety and concision of mood: meditation, melancholy remembrances, sunrise and sunset, afternoon sunlight and showering squall. In the third consolation there is a thematic reference to a Chopin nocturne, as if recalling the glow of his close friendship with Chopin. These movements are rather opaquely autobiographical and remain an original musical invention rarely imitated. They were a popular staple of the late nineteenth century yet have fallen from the traditional current repertoire which often eschews contemplative meditation. It was a rare delight to hear these 1856 gems played on a piano in the manner that Liszt would have approved.

Rodriguez, who is a Poughkeepsie native, will be receiving his doctorate next month from the Conservatorio Bruno Maderna in Cesena, Italy, presenting his written dissertation on the Etudes of Chopin and a public performance of an all-Chopin program. He played Chopin’s Scherzo no. 1 in B minor, Op. 20 with astonishing éclat, prefacing the performance with the offhand comment that this was the first piano piece he had ever learned. The backstory is that he had exhausted his first piano teacher in four weeks and a friend of his, Gwendolyn Tibbals, phoned a noted pianist asking if he could provide instruction. When the instructor inquired what he could play, she replied this Chopin Scherzo; he replied that that was not possible and that she must be mistaken.

Written amid a period of emotional despondency in Vienna during Christmas week of 1830 (published in 1835) with its frightening shrieks of despair which plumb the lower depths, so much so that an impressed Robert Schumann declared that “If jest wears such dark veils, how is gravity to clothe itself?” Chopin even employs a well-known Christmas lullaby to convey his howl of loneliness in this first lonely Christmas that Chopin spent outside of Poland.

Rodriguez next played Chopin’s Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38. The Ballade was an original invention by Chopin and like Liszt’s Consolations a genre not imitated by others. While loosely based on the idea of a poetic ballad, a folk-form that all sophisticated Romantic poets adopted, Chopin’s few Ballades are fiendishly difficult to play and are often not even played in all-Chopin recitals.

This 1835 Ballade was dedicated to Robert Schumann (and Schumann dedicated his remarkable Kreisleriana to Chopin, who was not impressed); in Leipzig Chopin declared that sixteen-year-old prodigy Clara Wieck was the only pianist in Germany who knew how to play his work. Rodriguez said that he chose this work because he thought there were musical affinities to the Beethoven Sonata with which he opened the concert. A spontaneous standing ovation greeted the climatic conclusion.

For encore, Rodriguez played his specialty: a Chopin Étude. We hope to hear Rodriguez play more concerts in our county, but since he speaks fluent Italian and Spanish, he may find more fortune abroad, as few prophets or virtuosos are accepted in their native digs.

Smithfield Church in Amenia will be holding another concert on Saturday, June 1, at 4 pm. Arriving from Italy for this concert will international pianist Francesco Attesti from Cortona and Matteo Galli, principal organist at the Great Basilica in Milan. They will be playing a duel-program of Vivaldi, Verdi, and Mozart on the 1866 Steinway and 1893 Johnson tracker organ.