The 40th season of the Washington Performing Arts Society’s popular Hayes Piano Series opened this Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater with the German pianist Severin von Eckardstein. Highly decorated with prizes (including a third and special at Leeds and a win the following year at the Queen Elizabeth), he seems one of those players that steadily and smartly build their career over the years rather than being teenage flavors of the day, catapulted to instant fame by marketing campaigns. (It makes for the kind of career that sacrifices material gains in the early years for the small chance of achieving lasting greatness… although I am probably wrong in assuming that either type of artist ever really had a choice.)
Eckardstein played the Schumann Fantasie in C Major, op. 17, as his first piece – a substantial and challenging work for any pianist. Programming the Fantasie pleasantly put the emphasis on interpretive qualities rather than mere technical skill. If the motivation behind it was a good one, the execution may have been, too, but no more than that. None of the three movements consistently convinced on an emotional level. Between nice touches here and there (especially in the more fulminant passages) the playing veered dangerously close to routine. When I read about him in the Financial Times well over a year ago, David Murray effusively praised Severin von Eckardstein’s performance at Wigmore Hall, pointing out “ultra-deft” pedaling and “ultra-lucid” everything; playing that has “infinitely precise graduations of touch and timbre […] lending astonishing depth.” The risk he was taking in the same Fantasie then was conspicuously absent at the Terrace Theater.
Tim Page, Von Eckardstein: A Real Earful (Washington Post, October 17)
Only a few of the surprising amount of unclaimed seats (the series is sold out on subscription, but it is always worth checking on the day of the performance to get a returned ticket) were filled during the Schumann. But the shuffling and huffing during the second movement was much less disturbing than one painfully slowly yet very audibly unwrapped piece of candy. It caused me a seemingly endless minute of anguish.
Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit – interrupted only by a cell phone and the subtle white noise of either the loudspeaker or AC system – once more took the listener on the trip towards the music. With the playing almost self-effacing on the surface, one went from curiously untouched to almost unwillingly seeking more – only to be surprised when there was more to find, after all. Eckardstein’s unsentimental, intelligent and mature playing can, depending on the occasion, be refreshing and presumably be worth all the past praise. I doubt if this particular recital showed enough to elicit such a rapturous response, though. It turned out to be a more educational experience, sprinkled with very impressive moments such as the dreamlike and precise Scarbo movement of Gaspard.
In a concert awash in Romantic pianism where all borders, lines, and structures were soft, faded, or hazy, a hard-edged Prokofiev sonata could have been relief; a well-defined and graspable raft amid the sea of sound. Not the ‘soft’ fourth sonata, however, which came out curiously if appropriately French. It was not missing in power, and the Allegro molto sostenuto’s rounded corners and mellow core were very well done even where I was wishing for the bite of some of the other sonatas. The third movement (Allegro con brio, ma non troppo) was a highlight of an unflashy, unspectacular recital that was the piano connoisseur’s prerogative to enjoy.
Severin’s encore of choice is Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, the fourth of Rzewski’s North American Ballads. A work that slowly works itself away from repetitive Darmstadt-type of muzak in the left hand (swelling to the point where the piano and some of the audience were at the breaking point) into a blues that is so infecting and surprising to the suspiciously reserved audience that it caused chuckles of delighted relief when the blues first set in. A gasp went through the hall when he came to the passage that is played with the elbow. The mechanical repetitions (one may think of the left hand in Chopin’s A-flat major Polonaise, op. 53) release a storm of energy that Severin knew to unleash better even than the composer himself on his Nonesuch recording. Needless to say that the ten/eleven-minute piece made for a tremendously effective concert closer.
Von Eckardstein has just released a Scriabin album, his second, on MDG. The Hayes Piano Series's next peformance will feature this year's Van Cliburn Competition winner Alex Kobrin on November 12th.