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David Greilsammer Pairs Scarlatti and Cage

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Mozart, Early Piano Concertos (K. 175, 238, 246), D. Greilsammer, Suedama Ensemble
We have taken note of David Greilsammer before, on a disc of the early Mozart concerti with the Suedama Ensemble. The Jerusalem-born pianist made his Washington recital debut on Saturday afternoon, presented by Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The concept behind the concert was intriguing, a program that alternates between sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti on modern piano and others by John Cage on prepared piano. This makes sense, since both composers wrote sonatas that are compact, animated by rhythm, freely colored with folk music tinges, and virtuosic. Greilsammer mistakenly added largely unneeded, more extravagant musings in a short program note ("Scarlatti and Cage conceived these pieces to be the messengers of a yet unknown world, [...] like an Unidentified Flying Object, passing in the sky") and in a tediously long spoken introduction to this hour-long concert.

Greilsammer then set about bending the two composers' pieces toward one another. To the Scarlatti sonatas he applied all sorts of dynamic twisting, using the soft pedal to achieve ghostly effects, taking unusual tempo choices, and slathering on rubato. The modern piano, of course, has all sorts of expressive possibilities that were not part of what Scarlatti was trying to do, since his sonatas were to be played mostly on the harpsichord. K. 213 was almost without sound so softly was it played, at a slow tempo, some of the notes almost not sounding at all. K. 141, by contrast, was taken extremely fast, so much that some of the notes were sort of half-articulated by Greilsammer's fingers, especially the guitar-like repeated-note motifs, making the hand crossings, such a signature for Scarlatti, difficult to make understood aurally. K. 87, on the other hand, felt flattened out, with the echo effects sort of mechanically nullified, the better to go with its Cage companion. The sustaining pedal obscured most of the details of K. 381, and K. 175 had a chaotic lack of regular pulse at times, making for a badly affected result.

Other Reviews:

Simon Chin, David Greilsammer: Lots of adventurousness, and some missteps, in Terrace Theater recital (Washington Post, January 13)
To make the alternation of composers seamless, Greilsammer sat between the prepared and regular pianos, which faced each other, keyboard to keyboard. Pivoting on a stool and dropping the music for each piece on the floor -- a distracting gesture that could be easily remedied through memorization of the music -- he sometimes leapt from Scarlatti to Cage, or vice versa, with almost no break. Cage's preparation of the piano limits the performer's ability to control the sound, so Greilsammer could do less in these pieces to bring them closer to Scarlatti, but he gave them as much expressive shape as he could. These are some of my favorite pieces by Cage, a composer whose later music mostly vexes me, and Greilsammer played them well, and the programming often aligned key centers and even motifs between the two composers' pieces. The least apt of the pairings was Cage's no. 11 and Scarlatti's K. 531, both so slow that most of the excitement was missed, especially the latter, which lost of all of its sparkling trumpet fanfare-like qualities. Overall this was a concept that worked better on paper than in practice.

The next concert from WPAS will feature cellist Alisa Weilerstein (January 19, 7:30 pm), at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

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