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Christopher Hinterhuber at the Austrian Embassy

Christopher Hinterhuber:
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F. Ries, vol. 1

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C. P. E. Bach
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During a recital at the Austrian Embassy on Friday night, also presented by the Embassy Series, Christopher Hinterhuber played the same Steinway that Till Fellner had played earlier in the week, but the interpretive decisions and resulting sound were entirely different. It was a tense performance -- sometimes brilliant, sometimes unsettled, generally loud and incisive -- that often seemed unsuited in style to its program choices. A handful of memory slips, all recovered from without too much trouble, seemed a further sign that the Austrian pianist had not fully thought through and digested the music that was passing, often at dizzying speed, under his fingers.

Two Haydn pieces received cursory readings, as if Hinterhuber had not allowed the music a chance to reveal itself. The first movement of the F major sonata (Hob. XVI:23) had flashy Rococo figuration, but the second-movement Siciliano felt rushed, and a desultory third movement was true to the Presto tempo marking but ignored the musical wit. The G major capriccio, on a quirky little folk tune (Acht Sauschneyder müssen sein, Hob. XVII:1), was similarly square and unsubtle, with hammered rhythms negating any dance-like lilt. The driving steamroller approach could have worked better in Beethoven's "Appassionata" sonata (F minor, op. 57), in the obsessively percussive style that Paul Lewis's recent recordings reveal as excessive.

Bad memory slips in the Beethoven -- a minor one in the first movement's opening section, more serious ones at the end of the exposition and at the end of the recapitulation, leading into the coda, as well as an even worse one in the slow movement -- instead gave the impression of a player at the edge of control, substituting visceral excitement for accuracy and carefully considered architecture. Having started the first movement at the fast edge of the tempo left Hinterhuber little room to make the coda even more exciting (the same situation occurred in the third movement), and the cursory handling of the second movement, one of the most exquisite sets of variations, was disappointing.

Debussy's L'Isle joyeuse was more technically sound, but a forceful, overly harsh touch made this evanescent work -- how much of the score is marked piano or pianissimo! -- too definite, not transparent enough. The least familiar work on the program, Mendelssohn's E minor prelude and fugue (op. 35, no. 1) was better suited to Hinterhuber's style, in a stormy reading of the prelude, with a melody clearly arising from a turbulent fantasy of dense notes (the forest of 32nd notes is marked Allegro con fuoco). The fugue shows Mendelssohn's careful study of Bach and again reveals Mendelssohn as the most successful 19th-century contrapuntist after Beethoven. A pounding accelerando led to a triumphal statement of the subject in the bass, followed by a choral-like setting leading to the work's close, with Bach's organ fugues the likely models for Mendelssohn.

Hinterhuber also offered two encores, which turned out to be some of the most satisfying performances of the evening -- perhaps because they interested the pianist more than the standard fare he may have felt he needed to program. Debussy's Hommage à Haydn came across with much greater clarity than L'Isle joyeuse, with the five-note motif denoting Haydn's name floating limpidly in the right hand. Debussy was one of six composers to offer tributes to Haydn on the occasion of the first centenary of the composer's death, for the January 1910 issue of La Revue Musicale. The other composers were Ravel, Dukas, d'Indy, Hahn, and Widor -- someone this year should put a concert together to showcase the entire set.

The Embassy Series will feature Turkish pianist Emre Elivar next, at the residence of the Turkish Ambassador (June 12, 7:30 pm).

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