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Prelude to an Apfelstrudel

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F. Schubert, Impromptu D935, 3 Klavierstücke, Sonata D850 in D, Matthias Soucek
Continuing their 2006 Mozart celebration at the Austrian Embassy, the Embassy Series invited Austrian pianist Matthias Soucek to D.C. for two recitals last Friday and Saturday. Friday the young artist, already well known in Austria, offered Mozart’s Sonata K570, the “Ah, vous dirai-je Maman” Variations, Liszt, Ravel, and Schubert’s 3 Klavierstücke. Saturday he presented Sonatas K283 in G major and K333 in B-flat major in the first half of the program.

He wasn’t done any favors being described as “Poet and Dreamer on the Piano” in the liner notes [from his own bio, actually!], which conjures rather horrid concepts of over-romanticized, new-ageish indulgence of the most vapid kind. Fortunately that label couldn’t have been further from the truth in the Mozart. Clear and in one breath, with a dry and nicely accentuated left hand Mr. Soucek had an unmannered fluency and svelte shading. It was a no-nonsense approach that left these Mozart sonatas enjoyable enough and easily digestible. Wonderful the melted chords in the K333 Andante cantabile. With perhaps a touch more emotion than Alicia de Larrocha, he exerted effortless control over the music’s inner workings, keeping every note in place and every movement ‘together’… comparable to the (greatly underrated, somewhat more indulgent) Fou Ts'ong, for example. Having had masterclasses with Paul Badura-Skoda surely didn’t hurt his Mozart, either.

From Mozart it went to Chopin after intermission. Here, too, Soucek was not too dreamy. There will be those who prefer their Chopin more deliberate and those who prefer theirs more refined; I quite like moving Chopin closer towards Liszt – and a swift but unhurried performance with a high level of proficiency was a fine thing to hear.

If you have never heard of Alfred Grünfeld (1852-1924), then… well, that’s quite alright. Think of him as the labor between the music of Johann Strauss, Jr., and the interpretation thereof on the piano. On one end you put in the music of Die Fledermaus, and out the other end comes a delectable little charmer by the name of Soriée de Vienne. Very droll, indeed; great encore material methinks.

Onto Schubert’s Impromptu D935 no. 2 in B-flat major: almost as Austrian but of course musically on quite another level. Alas, gone was the crispness that had kept the Mozart fresh, away the bold element of the Chopin. Schubert’s music can take any degree of Romanticism and still delight, but this was not so much Romantic but flabby with Schubert sounding more like the kind of Chopin interpretation I don’t like even when it is Chopin – much less Schubert. Twenty fingers were employed with precision and a way which there wasn’t anything specifically wrong – but the aloof, nocturnal exercise left one completely untouched.

In Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsodie was a lot more to be had – Soucek charged in headlong and emerged unscathed; keeping everyone energized to tackle the Austrian Embassy’s Apfelstrudel, which, whenever served, is the secret superstar of the evening.