February 21, 2019

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Five Days, Three Pianists, Three Generations

Five Days, Three Pianists, Three Generations
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Over just five days in New York, three distinctive pianists at three different stages of their careers offered exceptional performances.

The first half of Jeremy Denk’s fascinating recital at Carnegie Hall on Friday was devoted to themes and variations, beginning with Beethoven’s cheeky Variations on “Rule Britannia,” and ending with his astounding “Eroica” Variations,” a warm-up for the “Eroica” Symphony. The intricate manipulations Beethoven gives his themes in the symphony’s finale are nothing compared to the gnarly gyrations of the piano variations, which Mr. Denk, 48, dispatched with a winning combination of pluck and intensity.

Between the two, he performed John Adams’s swirling, murky “I Still Play” Variations and Mendelssohn’s darkly brilliant and, at times, vehement “Variations Sérieuses,” written in homage to Beethoven. Schumann’s Fantasy in C, which Mr. Denk played after intermission, also nods to Beethoven by quoting a theme from the song cycle “An die ferne Geliebte” in the wistful final episode of the fantasy’s teeming first movement.

This 30-minute fantasy in three movements is one of Schumann’s most ingeniously structured scores, yet Mr. Denk kept you engrossed every moment by fantastical, dreamy, and, in the rousing march movement, giddily energetic flights. This was one of the finest performances I’ve heard of an elusive and challenging piece. As an encore, Mr. Denk, who revels in mood-shifting pairings, played Donald Lambert’s 1941 take on the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” which turns this solemn anthem into something close to boogie-woogie.

Schumann dedicated the Fantasy in C to Liszt. Years later, Liszt returned the favor by dedicating his daunting Sonata in B minor to Schumann. On Saturday, the 28-year-old Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov gave a stunning performance of the sonata at the 92nd Street Y. With prodigious technique and rhapsodic flair, Mr. Abduraimov dispatched the work’s challenges, including burst upon burst of arm-blurring octaves, with eerie command. I was even more impressed by how he conveyed the structure of this single-movement yet boldly episodic piece. He began with an elegant account of Liszt’s remarkable piano transcription of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”

There were danger signs from Mr. Abduraimov, however, in his account of Prokofiev’s 10 Pieces from “Romeo and Juliet.” Though Mr. Abduraimov sometimes played with captivating delicacy and milky colorings, he could not resist going for broke during the percussive, heaving episodes of these pieces. His sound was too often steely and harsh.

Finally, on Tuesday at Zankel Hall, Leon Fleisher, who turned 90 in July, had a belated birthday celebration. A revered pianist and teacher, Mr. Fleisher has inspired several generations of younger musicians. He has also been a role model in the way he coped with infirmity. In the mid-1960s, hailed as one of the leading pianists of his generation, he suffered a debilitating injury to his right hand, apparently because of over-intense practicing. In time, he channeled his energy into conducting, teaching and performing left-hand piano repertory. In the 1990s, after a range of treatments, he emerged again as a two-hand pianist, though never quite fully.

There have been shortcomings to his right hand’s functioning in recent years, but his playing has always been profoundly musical, as with his performance on Tuesday of Egon Petri’s arrangement of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze.” Mr. Fleisher played this lovely piece with lilting sway and tenderness and brought out inner voices beautifully. He excelled in Leon Kirchner’s “L.H.” for left hand, written for him — a piece of impetuous energy and tangy, atonal harmonies.

Two devoted Fleisher students also took part. Jonathan Biss gave a fervent and insightful account of Beethoven’s Sonata in E (Op. 109), marred by a couple of rough passages, and a glistening performance of Kirchner’s restless “Interlude II.” And Yefim Bronfman joined the Dover String Quartet in the dramatic first movement of Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor.

The evening ended with fitting intimacy. Mr. Fleisher played Mozart’s soft-spoken Piano Concerto No. 12 in A (K. 414), in a version for piano and string quartet (the Dover players again) and bass (Rachel Calin). If his right-hand passagework did not always sparkle, it hardly mattered, for all the genial warmth and integrity of his playing.



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