At the ISGM Calderwood Hall last Saturday evening, Larry Weng showed off his impressive piano technique, at once strong, subtle, and colorfully voiced, in a recital which also made clear his savviness about the dazzling Gardner instrument and the crisp acoustics of the towering space.
Weng had prepared this 2020 Beethoven sestercentennial program, pre-covid, without any music by the composer. Attempting occasional meditations on the Seventh symphony, the concert for the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts comprised the first movement of the Schumann Fantasy, John Corigliano’s Ostinato Fantasia, Schubert’s B-flat Impromptu, and the Brahms Piano Sonata 3.
Weng also spoke. Modest and low-keyed, in introducing the Schumann he played the Seventh symphony Allegretto’s famous dactyl-spondee opening, mentioned Schlegel’s famous “secret hearer” quote, and pointed out the famous use by the Clara-yearning composer of Beethoven’s Distant Beloved song cycle. Strangely, unless I somehow missed it, he failed to lede with the first news: this Fantasy was a major part of a fundraiser for a big Beethoven monument in Bonn. (Dedicatee Liszt took on responsibility for the statue’s completion. Look right.)
Weng began with forceful, eloquent melody over the lefthand swirls — Charles Rosen pointed out that if you don’t get the swirls right you don’t get Schumann, period — but overall the approach felt brisk where it should be grand. By the end Weng had settled more toward grandeur, and lovely power and rich voicing prevailed. It’s a work of such greatness as can hardly be written about, and I sorely regretted its stopping after the first movement. Ugh.
John Corigliano (b.1938) riffs on the same Beethoven 7 passage, “to combine the attractive aspects of minimalism with convincing structure and emotional expression.” Okay. His Fantasia could well be shorter, but Weng’s voicing brilliance made the work’s slowness feel quite wonderful, leading to major rocking-out followed by taper, ending on what sounded to me like a mystery cadence for which we probably should go delve Beethoven, and not the ostinatos.
The Schubert Impromptu in B-flat Major is a theme and variations in Beethovenian style of subdividing and harmonically shifting a simple tune as the song proceeds. Maybe it features those signatory dactyls, although once you’ve been alerted to look for them it’s like hearing and-two-and-ONE before and after Beethoven 5: they’re used almost everywhere by almost everyone for rhythmic drive and acceleration, potent cadences and potent phrase starts, propulsive transitions, and more. Weng’s spritely Schubert take rose to a heated temperature inapt for such a smiling work, plus it simultaneously came across as static and lacking in line.
In fact, the entire recital made me ponder whether Weng, whom I have strongly reviewed many times now, might give more attention to overarching sequential form as realized in sound. His attention to elegance of phrasing sometimes vitiated forward motion.
Indeed, a colleague noted excellences I didn’t focus on: delicate attention both to the surface details and to harmonic structure; repeated tossing-off of graduated strings of glittering pearls; a continuous and seamless dynamic range (this one is rare in young artists).
So I’m not sure what it is. The Brahms Sonata has to be a gorgeous, shapely, dramatically structured young journey, or set of journeys, five movements long but ever engrossing. (Locally we have recently thrilled to radiant renditions by Meng-Chieh Liu and Natalie Erlich, both now absent from the scene.) Otherwise it’s a mess of klunks. Even starting off in rather pushed, nonmajestic fashion, Weng did not fully reach the piecemeal condition, and on the way we experienced much beauty. But things fell apart more than once (notably so after Brahms’s wannabe-fugal Bach channeling), and toward the end the hubcaps flew, the wheels came off, and the rims started to spark.
In avoiding Fur Elise or similar for the unnecessary encore, Larry Weng remained true to his theme of Beethoven as honored by, not to say looming over, successors. Schubert’s G-flat Major Impromptu — what that choice had to do with the master was unclear even as Weng said something like “Of course this” in introducing it — was unduly weighted, almost misweighed, it seemed. There were attempts at light floating, even as the water was not quite having it.
David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.