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Ruth Laredo at the National Gallery

At the 2491st concert in the free series at the National Gallery of Art last Sunday, a full audience heard a program by pianist Ruth Laredo. This performer enjoys an international reputation, especially as an interpreter of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin (see the write-up of Ms. Laredo from the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland), but the echoing acoustic of the West Building's West Garden Court obscured what could otherwise probably have been exceptional performances. From where I was seated to the right of Ms. Laredo's piano, we could see the performer's face in concentration over the open case, and I suspect that our auditory experience was as clear as it was going to get. The first piece on the program was four pieces from Robert Schumann's Phantasiestücke (Fantasy pieces), op. 12 (the whole collection was played by Marc-André Hamelin at the National Gallery last December: see the Ionarts review by Jens Laurson on January 18). These pieces showed some of Ms. Laredo's strengths, such as the wandering, aimless tune of Des Abends (Evening time) and the well-voiced contrapuntal melodies of Warum? (Why?), both of which incarnate Eusebius (Schumann's dreamy, moonish alter ego), as well as the power and technical precision displayed in the two movements more in the character of Florestan (the manic yin to Eusebius's more depressed yang in Schumann's personality). In Aufschwung (Impulse), the fullness of sound was supported by a firm bass that was not overpowering, and in In der Nacht (In the night), the fast section seemed to buzz like a swarm of bees.

This was followed by the least pleasing part of the program, Beethoven's Sonata no. 23 in F Minor ("Appassionata"), which had some nice moments. However, an unjudicious use of the sustaining pedal created a far too cloudy sound for the space, in which one of the main motives of the first movement (le-le-le-sol) was often obscured. Before the last part of the first half, featuring three pieces by Alexander Scriabin, there was a long pause during which the lighting on the stage was changed, a sign that many people in the audience, myself included, interpreted as the beginning of intermission, only to be surprised by the words offered by Ms. Laredo about the composer, who is by all accounts one of her specialties. She noted that Scriabin and Rachmaninoff had similar backgrounds and musical training and that, while the latter most admired the music of Tchaikovsky, the former admired that of Chopin. The first piece that Ms. Laredo chose to play—Poème, op. 32, no. 1 (1903)—is from the composer's early, Chopinesque period, and it is in an only slightly dissonant post-Romantic style, with a pretty, tonal ending. The second piece—Guirlandes, op. 73, no. 1 (1914)—is still quite tonal in structure but with an unresolved ending that sounds more modern.

Scriabin Complete Piano Sonatas, with Ruth Laredo
Ms. Laredo reserved most of her comments for the last Scriabin piece she played—the Sonata no. 10, op. 70 (1913)—which she said is often labeled the "Trill" Sonata. Reading from the score, Ms. Laredo joked that the composer's performance directions, all written in French, "read more like a French novel than a piano sonata." Without saying what I perceived later during her performance (that is, that the main inspiration for this sonata is the singing of birds), she noted a major change in the character of this single-movement piece, marked by Scriabin "shuddering and winged," that comes with the musical entrance of a totally new sound. This section records warbling dissonant birdcalls, in multiple registers that required Scriabin to notate the music on four staves instead of the two (grand staff) normally used for piano, as reported by Elmer Booze in his program notes. This passage, with its constant shifting up and down the keyboard, revealed the still-remarkable technical fortitude of this pianist, now in her 60s. Marked overall by Scriabin with the words "Très doux et pur" (Very sweet and pure), this sonata has remarkably few moments of harsh dissonance, for its time (let us recall that Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire was premiered in 1912), although it does descend into an almost Webernesque pointillism near the end. Not surprisingly, the audience reacted with much less enthusiasm to the Scriabin offerings, despite Ms. Laredo's introduction. Nevertheless, I do recommend Ms. Laredo's recording of the complete Scriabin piano sonatas, with a selection of études and other pieces, as well (link to the left), from 1970, at the height of her powers.

After a short intermission, it was apparent that a number of audience members had left the building. First, Ms. Laredo played several preludes by that other side of the Russian prerevolutionary coin, Sergei Rachmaninoff. I admit freely that I am not a fan of Rachmaninoff, and I often reach the end of a performance of his music wondering if the result was worth all the effort, as I did that night. There was never any doubt as to Ms. Laredo's control over the most difficult passages, but the music itself left me uninspired. The piece that ended the program was Maurice Ravel's La valse, from 1921. This is a piece that I really like, but I was left somewhat flat by Ms. Laredo's rendition of the arrangement for one piano. The opening of this piece is a confused, turbulent wash of sound, out of which is supposed to rise the charming dance that is a tribute to the Viennese waltzes of Johann Strauss, Jr. Elmer Booze situates this fascination with the waltz in relation to the death of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Ravel's desire "to maintain and reinforce his preeminence." However, the other thing that happened in 1918 was the conclusion of the devastation of World War I, which seems to have been the inspiration for the rumbling music that almost obscures the lighthearted waltz in this piece. Here, too, Ms. Laredo seemed to apply too much sustaining pedal for the room, and her focus on the technical intricacies of the often-dissonant whirring of music further obscured the soaring waltz melody, to which it should be subordinate. What we needed to hear was the clear treble sound of the Stradivarius violin with the Bartók String Quartet (see Ionarts review on March 24), sawing out that twirling, dizzying tune.

For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of attending concerts at the National Gallery is walking out of the gallery to go home. I always walk through the courtyard between the gallery's two buildings and get to stare at the illuminated 4th Street façade of I. M. Pei's East Building, with Henry Moore's colossal bronze Knife Edge Mirror Two Piece (c. 1977), gleaming in the darkness. That night, it heard the melodies of Ravel's La Valse as I passed by it.

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