Cohen Brings All-Liszt Recital to La Jolla Music Society

Cohen Brings All-Liszt Recital to La Jolla Music Society

By • Sat, Dec 10th, 2011

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With an impressive recital by the Brazilian pianist Armando Cohen on Friday (Dec. 9), the La Jolla Music Society continued its salute to this year’s bicentennial composer, Franz Liszt. Although Cohen is little known in this country—he spent most of his career in Europe—his 2004 appointment to the faculty of Indiana University’s prestigious Jacobs School of Music may afford him greater exposure in North America.

And that would be a good thing, because audiences here are far too eager to hear the latest flashy young competition winner and gasp in wonder at the speed with which they can tear through the most challenging repertory. But velocity is the primary goal of car racing, not musical performance. The reward of hearing Cohen interpret an evening of some of Liszt’s most extroverted showpieces—“Grande Fantasie sur des Themes de Les Huguenots,” “Danse Macabre,” and “Rhapsodie Espagnole”—is to experience the composer’s grand architectural designs and elegant orchestral coloring without the distraction of hyperactive calisthenics.

From the ferocious parallel octaves of “Funérailles” to the cascades of descending diminished-seventh chords in “Danse Macabre” to the crystalline ascending scales of “Rhapsodie Espagnole,” Cohen’s composed, assured technique not only rose to every challenge, but conveyed an elegance, a certain equilibrium that is so elusive in performing Liszt. I am tempted to say that Cohen is a pianist’s pianist, but that does not mean that only other performers will get his message. The modest-sized Sherwood Auditorium audience responded warmly to his playing and was energized by his musical depth and probity.

Those of us who admire the sophistication of Liszt’s three later piano cycles “Years of Pilgrimage” and his monumental “Prelude and Fugue on BACH” for organ find early works such as his flamboyant fantasy on themes from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1836 opera “Les Huguenots” somewhat embarrassing. In the 1830s, long before individuals could tote around a DVD of an entire staged opera performance on their laptops, traveling piano virtuosi strung together hit tunes of current popular operas in a medley (or more grandly, a “fantasia” or “reminiscence”) that provided a cameo synopsis of the opera.

Liszt’s “Les Huguenots” fantasia opens with ominous octave rumblings from the bowels of the piano, sprints through a number of the opera’s marches and dramatic arias and concludes with a grand presentation of the opening lines of Martin Luther’s Reformation hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Cohen rendered this slick farrago with great finesse, but to me it remained a highly polished zircon.

Cohen included two late Liszt pieces “La Lugubre Gondola I” and “Unstern: Sinistra, Disastro,” although he was not as successful at bringing out their strange, almost atonal restlessness as was Andre Watts in his all-Liszt recital for LJMS in March, 2011. Watts’ evanescent account of four similar late works, including the second portion of “La Lugubre Gondola I,” verged on the spectral, while Cohen remained merely matter of fact.

He did save the best for the last, however, the “Rhapsodie Espagnole,” a hair-raising traversal of an Iberian travelogue whose textural density should by all rights require four hands rather than two. At its brilliant finale, Cohen appeared slightly winded, but during the fray, not a wrinkle or bead of sweat crossed his calm brow.

He offered a single encore, the familiar Liszt Third “Consolation.”

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