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Pianist Gilles Vonsattel
Ravishing Fingers: Gilles Vonsattel in Recital
By Gary Lemco
WITH THE PLAYING of his one encore, the Beethoven Bagatelle in G Major, Op. 126, No. 1, pianist Gilles Vonsattel concluded an exemplary recital of predominantly French music Sunday, February 10, 2013 at Le Petit Trianon Theatre, San Jose, for the Steinway Society the Bay Area. The Gallic delights of this evening’s musical fare had only one “party-crasher,” in the person of Franz Liszt – whose music Vonsattel has found compelling – and his Legend: St. Francois marchant sur les flots. The remainder of the program consisted in Poulenc’s flighty Les Soirees de Nazelle; both books of Debussy’s Images; an Homage a Ravel by Arthur Honegger; and the coup de grace or piece de resistance, Ravel’s ever-challenging Gaspard de la Nuit.
Vonsattel opened with a suite by Francis Poulenc, "Les Soirees de Nazelles” (1930-1936), a set of variations or character-sketches of the composer’s cronies. The “Nazelles” refers to Poulenc’s country estate at Noizay, south of Paris. Based on a series of gestures and charades, the pieces project a thoroughly improvised sensibility, light, ironic, percussive, jazzy, and sometimes soberly percussive. Typical of Le Petit Trianon’s acoustic, the Steinway had a hard patina and little to absorb the reverberation that cast occasionally harsh overtones. But the runs and cadenzas spun out by Vonsattel, along with his pert commentary, set the tone for the even more potent exercises that awaited us.
Vonsattel proceeded to both books of Claude Debussy’s Images (1905; 1907) that take their impetus from lacquer and porcelain icons that the composer often translated into “water pieces” in modal style that continue to compel our haunted attention. “Reflets dans l’eau” rather baptized our sensibilities in the “impressionistic” strategies and sounds that dominate Debussy’s special keyboard. Controlled runs and glacial harmonies mixed with pedaled colors to produce a shimmering procession of ravishing effects. “Hommage a Rameau,” a kind of parlando sarabande in soft Spanish colors, cast an antique glow, while “Mouvement” exploited toccata energies in hands (triplets in ostinati) and foot pedaling.
Vonsattel moved directly into Book II, with its more suggestive titles and affects, Debussy’s “frisson of mystery.” Whole tone bells sounded Javanese evocations for “Bells Through the Leaves,” the music’s moving through three staves to invoke a brilliant though exotic distance in our collective imagination. “The Moon Sets over the Temple That Was” satisfied our desire for out-of-body experience, a faraway landscape that might take its cue from Coleridge’s Xanadu. Vonsattel floated the passing dissonances with a sonic “wash” that dissolved the piano’s percussive qualities into something like shimmering lavender. Finally, the "Poissons d’or” (goldfish) erupted into Siamese fighting-fish, carved in lacquer. Blazing, even torrential, the colors commanded their own space, as elegant in their pearly expression as they were infinitely dexterous.
The second half began with Liszt’s 1863 St. Francois of Paola’s Walking on the Waves (of the Strait of Messina). Rather through-composed, the piece sets the murky, rough waters of the Strait in motion and transforms the figure into a potent chorale, the technique reminiscent of his symphonic poem, Slaughter of the Huns. Vonsettel’s left hand kept us as dazzled as his right, often projecting chromatic lines and undercurrents both passionate and intricate. The very waves that beset Francis soon became his means of having achieved grace, given Liszt’s penchant for transformation of theme or grund-gestalt, as Schoenberg expressed it. Then, adjusting his program that was to have included a piece by Heinz Holliger (likely with royalties to be paid), Vonsattel played a tiny Hommage a Ravel by Honegger, a perfect imitation of Ravel’s clear, parlando style, with a wisp of melancholy.
The famed – or infamous – difficulties of Ravel’s three-movement Gaspard de la Nuit (1908), after poems by Aloysius Bertrand, parallel the exotic and nightmarish, Gothic content of the poems themselves. “Ondine” offered Vonsattel a splendid rhapsody in water-colors, intricate and luxurious. Every sinuous line had its own element of seduction, a whirling light-show of color and metrical eddies, singularly intricate. Then, we had the rather ghastly Le gibet, with its ponderous B-flats tolling the shift of light upon a rotting carcass on a hangman’s tree. Taut and rife with a perverse plainchant quality, the Vonsattel performance maintained an eerie tension that literally had the grotesquerie suspended in the filmy air. Finally, the imp of the perverse in the form of Scarbo, a darting dwarf straight out of Fuseli’s “The Nightmare,” here a wild scherzo that reeled and accelerated in figures wrought from Liszt and even Mussorgsky. That Spanish rhythms infiltrated the proceedings recalled Ravel’s “drunken” piece, Alborada del gracioso, but more convulsive and weirdly heroic. The often ravishing colors Vonsattel coaxed and ripped from his Steinway bespoke a young master well in advance of his years by way of his veteran fingers.
Dr. Gary R. Lemco regularly contributes review to
Classical Music Guide. He resides in California.
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