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Juho Pohjonen Goes for Baroque

Saturday afternoon in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen performed on Washington Performing Arts Society's Hayes Piano Series, replacing Till Fellner, who had to withdraw due to muscular issues. The program promised cohesion and thoughtfulness, pairing a Couperin set of harpsichord works with Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, and a Handel keyboard suite with Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Starting with François Couperin’s Vingt-septième ordre (Book 4), it became clear that Pohjonen’s technique was perfectly suited to evocations of the harpsichord: every turn, trill, and embellishment was so impeccably executed that one almost forgot he was playing a modern piano. The sound was transparent, with the dynamics and pedal used ever so delicately to enhance the period sound. Pojhonen even used tempo and ornamentation as devices to indicate phrasing, just as a harpsichordist would, without ever letting the pervasive ornamentation take away from the melodic lines. It was beautifully done.

Immediately following the Couperin, the Ravel took new meaning from its usual pedal-heavy wash. Pohjonen began the first movement (Prélude) with such clarity of sound that the voices and ornaments almost sounded as if from Couperin’s oeuvre. It was wonderful to hear these influences directly, but Pohjonen never quite seemed able to get beyond this airiness of touch. The Ravel never leapt beyond this inspiration into its own personality. Instead, it sounded like the work of a pianist who was trying ever so hard to make these connections known. At a certain point, though, it became clear that this slightness of sound was not just an interpretative decision, but simply indicative of his capabilities. Puhjonen’s slight body does him no favors when it comes to his sound: his soft passages are gorgeously rendered, but anything meaty or loud comes across weakly. The Rigaudon was far too delicate, and even the Toccata sounded forced and underdone.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Juho Pohjonen (Washington Post, January 31)

Anthony Tommasini, Exploring Complex Works, Before You’ve Even Had Your Coffee (New York Times, January 17)
The Handel keyboard suite (B-flat major, HWV 434), again, was easily suited to Pohjonen’s style, but the Brahms fell flat. Pohjonen has remarkable fingers and effortless technique, certainly due to the muscular looseness of his gangling body, but the Brahms, based on a stately Handel theme, needed more. In contrast to the Couperin and Ravel, which, if nothing else, were meticulously thought out, the Brahms variations often felt like nothing but a series of notes. One wondered if Pohjonen was even enjoying the music. Phrases were clipped, often rushed, and the overall sound was anemic, with the larger variations lacking that Brahmsian substance.

WPAS has rescheduled Joshua Bell's recital, a victim of last week's snowstorm, for this Wednesday (February 2, 8 pm), in the Music Center at Strathmore.

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