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Piano Wizardry at Hotchkiss School

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Tue Jul 24th, 2018

Leonel Morales at Elfers Hall

Leonel Morales opened with two sonatas by the Catalan Antonio Soler (1729-83). Solar wrote over 500 works, yet his 150 keyboard sonatas remain as part of the Baroque repertoire. Soler’s sonatas have more color and formal flexibility than any other sonatas of the Baroque period, including those of Domenico Scarlatti, under whom he may have studied. Morales played two Sonatas in D, no. 86 and 88. These functioned as pleasant, witty opening pieces to relax and warm up both audience and his fingers.

Then it was on to the mountain of Beethoven’s Sonata in C major, op. 53, “Waldstein.” This was played austerely, exceptionally cleanly with good pedal work, but to my taste too severely and a smidgeon too fast. There was great polish on the surface, as if Morales was still in the polished modality of Soler—Morales evoked more surface color than most pianists in playing this work.

I must admit that I have a problem with hearing Beethoven played on the Italian Fazioli Pianofort at Hotchkiss. This piano has a unique, lighter and smoother, sound; Hotchkiss is the only place in this area that has this extraordinary piano. Only a hundred hand-built models are produced every year just north of Venice. So it is a treat to hear this gorgeous sound, yet the piano remains better suited to Impressionism and Surrealism.   

It was a great pleasure to hear this version played, but it was not my favorite version. Yet the concert had just begun: the fireworks not yet lit.

Morales tackled Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de La Nuit, the title of Aloysius Bertrand's only book of poems (1833). Bertrand’s few poems were discovered and exalted by the symbolists and surrealists for their strange liquid surface; Max Jacob (a poet I admire) acclaimed Bertrand to be the inventor of the prose poem, although I would argue that that honor belongs to Chateaubriand.

Ravel’s piano orchestration is one of the most difficult works in the piano repertoire. The several recordings of this work that I have are now a memory to be suppressed. Morales embodied the Impressionistic ideal of shimmering liquidity. The mythological water nymph Ondine was conjured in the flesh. Morales exhibited not only polish, but finesse with elegant emotion—he became the poet- magician-wizard at the keyboard. Rhythm and timing was impeccable. Le Gibet was suitably morose. Scarbo with its silly goblin pirouettes sounded like an orchestra. And when Morales bowed, his face cracked finally into a smile, for he knew that he had given an extraordinary performance. He was suddenly more relaxed.

In that mood he cartwheeled with three movements from Igor Stravinsky’s Petroushka (1911), a burlesque puppet ballet which Stravinsky invested with slap-stick music, amusing tricks, sudden cadenzas and unexpected halts—in short, a tour-de-force comedic romp. I’ve heard it played before with missing notes and more attention to the melody as a method of simplification, but here was the real gem played with heightened comedic brio. This was one of the most amazing tour-de-force performances I’ve ever heard. And, yes, it was wonderfully suited to the virtues of the Fazioli piano! Here was the triumph of surreal wit at the fingertips of a great master!

Morales endeared himself to the enthusiastic audience at Elfers Hall by playing three short encores.

Leonel Morales’ son, Leo Morales-Herrera, will perform Robert Schumann’s Humoresque, op. 20 and Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 8 in B flat major, op. 84 this Thursday at 7:30 (Elfers Hall). These Summer Portals Concerts at Hotchkiss are free and are open to the public.