The two-week long Hotchkiss Summer Portals season run by Fabio Witkowski is now in its sixth year. While several noted pianists will perform in Elfers Hall, the program is really about the students. This year selected students will perform at Carnegie Hall on July 24 at 8 pm and outdoors in Lakeville on July 25 at 7:30 pm at Fairfield Farms, as long as it does not rain. These concerts are free and open to the public.
On Sunday afternoon with clear skies Yablonskaya’s interpretation of Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511 affirmed Vladimir Horowitz’s pensive mood approach and perhaps went even further to offer a cloaking robust optimism against the grain of Robert Levin’s despairing moody take (due to Mozart’s presumed illness). Yet Yablonskaya was not playing on a period instrument (as Levin would prefer); she was playing on a lighter Italian piano more suitable to Romantic Impressionism than any period reconstructions. More than most of Mozart’s pieces, this work has been open to a great variety of interpretation. Yablonskaya emphasized the racing dance motifs of the rondo, hinting that there was some satire in the hectic pace of her performance—that the rondo was both an exciting exultation yet perhaps indicating a slightly empty whirl. So is it a heady whirl of delirium or a pointed whirl mocking empty frivolity? Her performance was ultimately impressionistic and enigmatic, as she edged the audience into the shade of ambiguity.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1798 Sonata in D major, Op. 10, no. 3. A pianist friend of mine noted that Yablonskaya played the opening Presto slightly faster than most players and she played the following desolate slow Largo slightly slower. The latter is usually interpreted as a meditation upon Beethoven’s own approaching death. And ever since Beethoven’s death, people have been debating the marvelous power of this work. Lewis Lockwood emphasizes that this Largo has an improvised, melancholic nuance to the movement: I think Yablonskaya captured such a probing feeling. The following Menuetto offered resignation while the concluding Rondo expressed the jubilant hope of respite from a man who was still under thirty, and the white-haired audience welcomed that optimistic reprieve with wild applause.
After intermission Yablonskaya played Beethoven’s 1820 Sonata in E major, Op. 109. The unusual Vivace opening of this work remains startling. My favorite fall-back recordings of Beethoven’s sonata are the versions of Emil Gilels who ever-so-slightly slows down Beethoven’s tempo for dramatic effect. I have heard the Swedish pianist Hans Pålsson play Beethoven on a modern Steinway a few times and I think he plays impressively with marvelous accuracy. Yablonskaya performed with exquisite polish with breathless charm. I was especially moved by the second Prestissimo movement where I momentarily felt like my mind was moving out of my body and entering some higher realm. For the slower concluding Andante, I was plunged back into my body to dwell with deep conflicting emotions. This was an extraordinary performance that lingers in my mind and ear.
Yet Yablonskaya went on to further heights with Rhapsody in B minor, Op. 79 no. 1 and no. 2 by Johannes Brahms. The first rhapsody supplies an astonishing outpouring with miniature set densities within a larger sweep. Brahms operates on micro and macro levels nearly simultaneously. To be both intricate and broad, to count the number of leaves on a tree and include the panorama, is to offer transcendent lucidity. The original manuscript reads Capriccio, yet most pianists don’t race at that level. Yablonskaya, however, had the tempo perfectly correct and took the audience on the roller coaster ride of valleys and breathless mountain tops. I am not a pianist and in situations like this my mind boggles at the ability of anyone to move their fingers so swiftly. (I am a plodding typist who makes numerous errors.) Brahms’ more extroverted piece permitted more contrast to the inner meditations of Beethoven, as well as demanding immensely different and difficult technical fingering. As flashing as the first rhapsody was, the second is even more immense. I just could not quite take it in, and sat frozen in astonishment.
Yablonskaya played the concert from memory without sheet music in the old manner, which appears to be disappearing today among younger generations in the United States. For encore she played Chopin’s Grande Valse in A-flat Major, op. 42 with such elegance and passion that the whole audience was stunned with awe. This opening concert was like an awesome display of expert fireworks. The audience rose to give Yablonskaya two lengthy, standing bows. She eventually smiled on the second bow.