The connection at the heart of Thursday’s Soundings concert at the Nasher Sculpture Center was tenuous at best. It was billed as a tribute to Van Cliburn and as such, it included some participants in recent Cliburn competitions tag-teaming through Olivier Messiaen’s mystical work for two pianos, Visons de l’Amen.
The inclusion of legendary pianist Leon Fleisher and the Juilliard String Quartet was a stretch, albeit a welcome one. Fleisher and the Julliard first recorded the work played for this performance, Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, in 1963, five years after Cliburn’s historic triumph in Russia’s Tchaikovsky Competition. (It is familiar to Cliburn competition audiences as one of the oft-played works in the chamber music round.)
The Juilliard Quartet, named for its residence in the famous music school, is different from the one that made that recording more than 50 years ago. Current members are first violinist Joseph Lin (joined 2011), second violinist Ronald Copes (joined in 1997), violist Roger Tapping (joined in 2013) and cellist Joel Krosnick (joined in 1974).
Fleisher has changed, as well. At 30, his career flourishing, he lost the use of his right hand. He tapped the rich vein of music for the left hand and continued concertizing. He also started to conduct. Now, at 85, with the recalcitrant hand useful again, he remains in demand.
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Brahms doesn’t write above a fortissimo, but the quartet started at that level and went up from there. Fleisher, playing at the piano in the back, never had a chance.
The sound the quartet produced was so beautifully full and rich that you could forgive the overplayed dynamics but, by relegating the pianist to the background, they changed the nature of the piece.
The first pianists playing the nine-movement Messiaen suite were Lindsay Garritson and Alex McDonnald (from the 2013 Cliburn), who set a high standard with the opening two movements. They were replaced by 2013 Cliburn finalist Tomoki Sakata and Yekwon Sunwoo (2013 contestant) for the next two movements. Andrea Lam (2009 Cliburn semifinalist) and Amy Yang (2009 competitor) were the last pair to take over.
Various combinations ensued, but the intensity of the music never flagged, leading to Messiaen’s blazing vision of paradise at the end.
This piece is an excellent choice for such a display of talent. The composer purposely wrote different music for each of the two piano parts.
Thus, even though they were playing in pairs, the pianists could showcase their individuality.