Hundred and sixty people in the Herkulessaal in Munich are just the right amount to accentuate the 1340 empty seats. If that were a unique experience at all, one might point the finger at pianist Tzimon Barto for blame. (Not, presumably, his Munich-friendly program of Liszt-Brahms-Chopin fireworks of conventionalism.) But since this happens all the time with solo and chamber recitals in Munich – except for a few established acts that have been around for several decades – the blame lies somewhere between the concert agencies (I nearly, erroneously called them concert promoters) and the Munich audience. The city likes to fashion itself a “Musikstadt”, but is really only interested in its own orchestras and then – a few niches excepted – only with exceedingly uncurious taste. I wouldn’t have known about the recital myself, had it not been for a call from a friend who turned pages, on the day of the recital.
Up on stage, above the diverse, sparse crop of heads equally young and old, sat Tzimon Barto, stoic, and plowed through Franz Liszt’s Grandes études de Paganini (the 1851 revision of the Études d'exécution transcendante d'après Paganini), one after another, unfazed. Nicely, too, with a more balanced forte than I have come to expect from a pianist I cherish mostly for the many shades he produces at mezzo piano and below. Once the little-big bell of the third Étude had stopped ringing and the fourth Étude came around, Tzimon Barto might have found his evening’s grove… in any case the merry Rameau-like gleams perked the ears, as did the uncommonly beautiful Fifth Variation, so surprisingly close to Scarlatti – a composer Tzimon Barto professes not to care for much. Could have fooled me. And just after that island of nicety came the passive-aggressively wilfull final Étude, which was all the more entertaining for it.
|J.P.Rameau, "A Basket of Wild Strawberries", T.Barto |
There is something asinine in giving prizes to established artists in their autumnal years. Riccardo Muti and Anne-Sophie Mutter don’t need prizes anymore; anyone doling them out is merely keen on their glow of glory reflecting on the giver, while praying that the recipient please bother to actually show up and collect it in person. Or as Friedrich Cerhar (*1926) said, upon receiving the 2011 €60,000 Salzburg State Music Prize: “The prize comes too late.” He could have used it when he wasn’t already part of the establishment.
Then there are prizes suffering from less vanity or genuinely concerned with fostering as yet unheard voices… and usually go the other route of seeking youth – very often for youth’s sake: The younger the better, because teen-genius is somehow more newsworthy than overlooked middle-aged craftsmanship. Then there are prizes handed out blindly, sometimes with surprising, refreshing, gratifying results. Like the 2012 winner of the Barto Prize that went to 72 (!) year old Kent Holliday. I’ve come across a few composers and artists whose work has gone unsung for the whole of their lack of a career. Robin Walker comes to mind, whose music is so unfashionably consonant, full of unacceptable naïveté and beauty, bundled with an auto-destructive gift for self-effacement. I don’t know why Kent Holliday – composition and piano teacher at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg isn’t known better; after hearing his prize-winning composition “Incantations of Popol Vuh” it only becomes harder to believe. Soft and color oriented elements, rich in overtones and busy with irregular birds in every register flitter over pumping, convulsing rhythms that indecently belie the composer’s age. Not modern, just neat.
A muscular (ha!) Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante by Chopin followed, with gaily twirls and soft hues interspersed, careening the notes with delight, played with skill that exceeded Chopin’s demands, and something of the attitude of a bar pianist might have tinkling “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead”. Encores: A Chopin Nocturne, awfully nocturnal. Then a jolt of Joplin (“The Easy Winners”) played as if on an India rubber band, the music sloshing about inside the Steinway and lapping over its sides onto the select but happily listening audience. Schumann’s Mignon – sucking the newfound energy right out of the recital – might have been too much, perhaps, if Barto didn’t do contemplative, forlorn, exaggeratable Schumann so damn well.