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François-Frédéric Guy

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Excellent Beethoven Cello Sonatas!

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Brahms 2nd PC
“Les Grands Pianistes” is an audacious name for the recital series organized jointly by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and La Maison Française. But for anyone who scrapes a little deeper in the world of classical pianists will find that beyond the biggest names like Andsnes, Brendel, Fleisher, Perahia (who will not likely perform again due to a recurrent hand injury), Pollini, Uchida, Zimerman, and (I cringe to include him in such rarified company) Lang-Lang, there are many artists of all ages revered either in particular repertory or by a small but devoted group of aficionados. Among them consider such pianists as Håkon Austbø, Paul Badura-Skoda, Ivan Moravec, Evgeni Koroliov, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Richard Goode, Arcadi Volodos, Idil Beret, Alexei Lubimov, Konstantin Sherbakov, Boris Berezovsky (not this guy) – and the three grands pianists of the Corcoran: François-Frédéric Guy, Nicolas Angelich, and of course the Ionarts favorite Alexandre Tharaud. From what I have heard about and from these artists, they are indeed Les Grands Pianistes if you add the caveat “of their generation” and be certain to say it in French.

François-Frédéric Guy made the start with his recital at the Corcoran Gallery on Monday and will give a slightly different one today, Wednesday, at the Maison Française (MF). Those who missed FFG at the sparsely filled Hammer Auditorium ought to consider the Maison Française concert which will feature Beethoven’s op.27 no.2 (“Moonlight”), Brahms’ op.116 Fantasies, and Brahms’ Sonata No.3, op.5 as well as a superior piano in the MF’s Bösendorfer.

The Corcoran Gallery, hailed by us and everyone else as “the greatest venue for chamber music in Washington” and consistently offering the finest chamber programs and groups in town, has only one flaw I know of… but that flaw can torpedo any decent or good musical performance and at least dampen the enjoyment of an excellent one: The piano of the Corcoran (once in possession of one of the best in town), even when freshly voiced as I suspect it had been for this concert, is a dreadful instrument in the hand of a mediocre player and can’t achieve brilliance even under the most talented paws.

To discern how much effort FFG had to invest into making the piano sound decent and how that came at the expense of detail, voicing, or nuance that could otherwise have been employed, is difficult to estimate. It was astounding enough that FFG turned the usually clanky box into a rather warm if fuzzy and murky instrument. The performance at the MF may give clues as to which elements of his playing were stylistic choice and which ones demands of circumstance.

Beethoven’s Sonata No.7, op.10, no.3 was powerfully driven in the first movement, heavily pedaled, had individuality through clipped accents, and was generally tackled like one of the “big”, later sonatas. Tempi were pulled to interesting effect in the slow second movement and he offered a surprisingly slow Allegro in the Menuetto before blazing through the third movement (Trio). The last movement’s little “tail” trickled cutely, softly, and swiftly to the floor.

If that was able and satisfactory Beethoven, the following piece turned the table in favor of a very memorable concert: I have no idea who the composer Hugues Dufourt – a friend of the artist’s – is, but now I wish I did. Allegedly of the Darmstadt School of composing, I have never heard such a beautiful, naturally evocative, and warmhearted work by a composer with that label. Dufourt’s Rastlose Liebe does not attempt to shock or abuse with abrasive surfaces, hard corners, and sharp edges. It’s modernism that ‘doesn’t bite’, immediately making a friendly impression. It charms as a whole without necessarily revealing the individual parts as orderly or making sense. The river’s bubbles, little currents, and swirls might seem like chaos upon close inspection but the direction of the streamlet describes a clear and logical progression from one place to another.

It wasn’t just FFG’s short, passionate, highly welcome introduction for such easily misunderstood music that made it shine as a warm, heartfelt piece of obscure, yet great, beauty. It was a work that, better than any other descriptively named work I know, evoked the feeling that I would associate with its name: “Restless Love”.

Brahm’s sonatas, like Brahms’ string quartets, are notable especially for their lack of noteworthiness. Not, presumably, because they are inherently modest works – but mostly because Brahms’ genius is so much more forcefully displayed in other piano and chamber works. In short: It’s no shame to admit that none of these pieces (including the third sonata op.5 in F-minor) do much for me. That is, unless they are played live, with complete abandon, and superior musicality.

Such a surprise is possible as happened last May when Angela Hewitt played the same work with plenty wrong notes but all the right feeling. Beauteous ramble rather than good Germanic structure is what the ear perceives in the first movement (though be assured that master-craftsman Brahms crosses all the “t’s” and dots all the “i'’s” when it comes to structure) – but in the hands of FFG this made for a sumptuous romantic impression and underscored the mark that the Dufourt piece left: That FFG is an extraordinary Romantic pianist… concerned with wider swaths of sound, perhaps less so with the inner voices of a work or the minutiae that make it up. At any rate a pianist deserving to be heard again and again.