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Gilles Vonsattel Connects with the Modern

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

After an unconventional opening to the National Gallery of Art's free Sunday concert series, it was back to the more traditional this week. Swiss-born, Juilliard-trained pianist Gilles Vonsattel (pictured) gave a recital on Sunday evening, after a slight delay while a piano technician sorted out a few intonation and action issues on the Steinway in the West Garden Court. When he had the entire action pulled out of the case, apparently to carve down a slightly sticky hammer, it seemed like the concert might fall victim to technical issues. Happily, Vonsattel sat down again after the technician's ministrations and pronounced the instrument acceptable.

Vonsattel's program (.PDF file) was strongest in the second half, where more recent music seemed to capture his attention more than earlier music had. A daunting, multilayered piece by 20-something Nico Muhly, Booklet, was the only work Vonsattel played from a score. Muhly and Vonsattel both did the dual-degree thing at Columbia and Juilliard, graduating a year apart from one another (2004 and 2005, respectively). The piece, about which precious little information is available, is comprised of massive structures that seem organistic in the use of prominent pedal octaves, recalling Muhly's interest in early church music. The basic pulse is a steely triple pattern, disrupted often by added beats, creating the effect of a sort of unpredictable toccata, in which the left hand focuses on booming loudness and the right hand predominantly on piling up soft, bristling harmonies, even at some points what one might call cocktail chords. Vonsattel, with a broad dynamic range at his disposal, distinguished the many voices from one another with orchestral color contrasts.

The high point of the program was Luigi Dallapiccola's Sonata canonica, composed in 1942 to 1943, a work that Vonsattel should think about recording (although it is not exactly unrecorded). Vonsattel showed a clear-minded understanding of the tonal ironies of the work, a tribute to (parody of?) the caprices of Paganini, and a mastery of its technical challenges -- full-pedaled music box sounds, crashing dissonance, manic trills, sforzando octaves, and rocketing tempi. Any doubt as to Vonsattel's virtuoso credentials was allayed by his concluding work, Liszt's Après une lecture de Dante, which played to the pianist's tendency toward a perhaps over-forceful touch in its outrageously loud, almost manic excesses. (It and several other pieces from Liszt's Années de pèlerinage are featured on Vonsattel's new CD.)

Vonsattel brought the same orchestral scope, unsatisfyingly, to the works on the first half, too. Bach's C minor toccata was made to sound as if it were a Busoni expansion, thanks to a fairly heavy use of the sustaining pedal in the already murky acoustic. The Schubert C minor sonata (D. 958, one of the composer's last three piano sonatas) seemed chosen out of a sense of duty to round out the program, as much of the work's finer points were hammered over in a largely too edgy performance. The encore of Schumann's Arabesque seemed to confirm that, for now at least, Vonsattel is more a showman than a finesse player.

This Sunday's free concert at the National Gallery of Art should be a good one, featuring the Festival Strings Lucerne (October 19, 6:30 pm). Show up early to get a good seat.

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