On Sunday night, the free concert series at the National Gallery of Art hosted a valedictory concert for Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda. The distinguished performer and author passed his 80th birthday last month, celebrated in the Salle Gaveau in Paris with a tribute concert featuring himself and other performers. Badura-Skoda has always impressed me most as a teacher, scholar, and writer. He made one of the first historically informed complete recordings of the sonatas of Mozart, on his own Viennese fortepiano, built during the composer's lifetime by Johann Schantz. His books (often published with his wife, Eva) are informative and transparently written, especially those on Bach and Mozart: they contain the kinds of discoveries that can only be made at the nexus between musicology and performance.
Available at Amazon:
Paul Badura-Skoda, Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard
Eva and Paul Badura-Skoda, Interpreting Mozart: The Performance of His Piano Pieces and Other Compositions, 2nd ed. (forthcoming, March 2008)
Mozart, Piano Sonatas (box set)
Sadly, the announced program, which would have highlighted Badura-Skoda's strengths in Bach and Schubert, was almost completely changed at the last minute. There was some Haydn to start with, the A-flat major sonata (Hob. XVI:46), which Badura-Skoda played with surprising freedom, applying the sustaining pedal liberally, which helped to cover some of the imprecision of his technique. The same impression came across in the Beethoven selection, the Waldstein sonata (op. 53), in which the technical challenges seemed a stretch for the present state of Badura-Skoda's pianism, at least by comparison with the best performances. He got a lot of the notes right, and he still has considerable strength in his arms that made it possible to give a full, bravura sound.
The best part of the new program opened the second half, Frank Martin's Fantasy on Flamenco Rhythms, written by the Swiss-born composer (then around the age Badura-Skoda is now) for Badura-Skoda and premiered by him at the Lucerne Festival in 1974. Badura-Skoda's note on the piece, printed on the back of the insert containing the program changes, was a touching reminiscence about the work. One might worry that this work may become even more obscure without Badura-Skoda to champion it, but its appeal is instantaneous, an excellent example of how a popular musical style can be incorporated into a format worthy of concert listening.
The final selection, Schumann's Symphonic Etudes in the Form of Variations, op. 13, ultimately demonstrated how Badura-Skoda had overreached in his program revision. As noted in the Beethoven, the tone is still puissant and penetrating, but most of the fine details of the score were sloppy and the texture murky. It is perhaps relevant that Badura-Skoda's farewell tour has stops only in a few locations off the beaten path (Austin, San Diego, and Palm Beach). While that is not how one wishes to remember Badura-Skoda, it was a tender moment listening to the octogenarian's encore, a simple-hearted rendition of Träumerei from Schumann's Kinderszenen (op. 15/7), which matched perfectly with Badura-Skoda's childlike smile as he soaked up the applause.
Stephen Brookes, Paul Badura-Skoda (Washington Post, November 13)
Next Sunday (November 18, 6:30 pm), the free concert series at the National Gallery of Art will host the world premiere of Sanctuary by Roger Reynolds, with the percussion ensemble red fish blue fish. Go to the auditorium of the East Building for what is sure to be a memorable experience.
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