Look, Learn, Listen…Love It!

Salon Piano Series delivers the total package

Here is what one usually gets at a Salon Piano Series event at Farley’s House of Pianos: A world-class pianist, some fascinating tidbits from Tim Farley about a historically restored keyboard, a memorable performance in an intimate setting, and a scrumptious wine and appetizer reception during which one can speak to the artist or to Tim and Renee Farley at leisure.

Here’s what we got Sunday: a 30 minute pre-concert talk and video from Tim, detailing the restoration of the 1908 Chickering piano about to be played by Alon Goldstein; Goldstein playing four Scarlatti sonatas, including one on both a clavichord and the Chickering; Goldstein joined by the Pro Arte Quartet and bassist David Scholl in an engaging arrangement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23, and then Goldstein and the PAQ in a blow-your-socks-off reading of the Brahms Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 34. Oh, and then the reception, during which performers and audience could collect their breath.

Goldstein has appeared here once before, at the opening of the previous season in the unique “Four on the Floor” event that featured three of his colleagues as well. We had at least a taste of his solo gifts in four sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. These are drawn from 555 such works, but they are not to be compared with the later usage of the term; these sonatas (“exercises,” Scarlatti called them) run in length from about two to five minutes. Each is a potential gem (no, I haven’t heard all of them—but all of them have been recorded!), and combine the composer’s Italian operatic/vocal roots with the Spanish influences of the Iberian peninsula where he spent most of his life.

It turns out that Goldstein played four different sonatas at the Saturday night performance than on Sunday (partly because he is in the midst of releasing a CD of 19 of them). The first on Sunday was K. 11 in C Minor, and Goldstein played it on a “gently amplified” clavichord. This is not at all interchangeable with the better known harpsichord; the latter plucks the strings and is decidedly louder, the former taps the delicate strings, and as Bach did, one could play into the wee hours of the morning on a clavichord without waking the kids. The amazing thing about hearing it then immediately on the Chickering grand was that, as delicately as Goldstein played, it still seemed unwieldy, almost clunky, compared to the gossamer sound of the clavichord.

We were then treated to K. 196 in G Minor, K. 508 in E-flat Major and K. 120 in D minor. Goldstein alluded to the fact that although Scarlatti composed virtually all of these works for the harpsichord, the pieces in effect opened up a new world of possibilities for keyboard music. Indeed, the works’ true revival dates from the mid-20th century, when Vladimir Horowitz began to program them on his piano recitals, and having first heard them that way, I had always felt that Scarlatti must have been imagining something like the piano as he composed; it was gratifying after all these years to have someone like Goldstein essentially concur!

The highlight had to be the last of set, which entailed no fewer than 106 crossings of the hands; that goes beyond “exercise”…

This was not the first occasion that the Salon Piano Series has brought in players other than pianists as part of their events, but fewer artists could have been chosen in a more timely fashion than our own Pro Arte Quartet. Back in the local music news with the publication of John Barker’s book about the 106-year history of the ensemble (you can read a review of the book here). Pictured above are violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia, author John Barker, violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp, courtesy of Sarah Schaffer. It hasn’t been long since cellist Parry Karp has been back at full strength. He missed about six months last year dealing with an issue with one of his hands; aside from the fact that he is the longest-tenured member in the group’s history (he joined in 1976), his rich playing is a key element for the foursome.

Then again, the reputation of the PAQ was never based on any one player, but largely on unanimity of phrasing, articulation, blended sound and superior intonation—a perfect group then for an arrangement by Ignaz Lachner of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. Goldstein shared that Mozart himself made similar arrangements of his Concertos 11-14, but never had time to do so with the later ones. Lachner adds a double bass to the quartet, but other than finding ways to incorporate what would have been the wind parts in the orchestral original, there are no changes to the music. The bass player was David Scholl, new faculty member of the Mead Witter School of Music here at UW-Madison, and principal bassist with the MSO, along with other regional orchestras.

Goldstein and friends delivered exactly what was hoped for and expected: nuanced playing as transparent and clear as one could want in Mozart. The slow movement gave us a stretch of pizzicato playing that was just absurdly rich and poignant in its sound, and the deft transversal of the finale sparkled from first note to last. Goldstein is well versed in these arrangements: he has already recorded the Concertos 21 and 22 with the Fine Arts Quartet for Naxos (the disc is something of a best seller on Amazon apparently), and a new CD of Nos. 23 and 24 is due from Naxos in September.

It should not have been surprising, but it was a little startling nevertheless, to hear how HUGE the Brahms sounded after the Mozart. After all, the latter featured the added bass, and consisted of six players acting as soloist and full orchestra. When Brahms wrote his Op. 34 in 1862 he was still years away from his first symphony, but the Quintet for Piano and Strings often feels like a large orchestral canvas. As gentle as the Chickering had been under Goldstein’s hands in Mozart, it now roared along with full-throated strings in Brahms. The surging passions of the first movement give way to quieter—but scarcely less intense—passions in the slow movement. But then Brahms opens the floodgates with a scherzo of unmitigated power that sizzled in this performance, only to be topped by a finale that made the Farley showroom feel ablaze.

In an age when standing ovations seem to be awarded as often as participation trophies, it felt good to join in one that necessitated three curtain calls. Among the fun facts gleaned at the reception, it was wonderful to hear that the previous Saturday night performance was full as well. Typically the Salon Piano Series concerts are one-performance only…as is the last of this season, Sunday May 12 at 7:30 pm. Pianist John O’Conor will be the returning guest artist; there are many reasons why artists want to come back here, and why audiences want them to. If you haven’t discovered that special enigmatic elixir of a Salon Piano Series event, do it in May!

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