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Beauty Over Power: Herbert Schuch at the Kennedy Center

We welcome this review from Ionarts guest contributor Seth Arenstein.

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Invocation (Bach, Liszt, Ravel, Messiaen, Murail), H. Schuch
(Naïve, 2014)
Washington Performing Arts President and CEO Jenny Bilfield rang in the 49th season of the Hayes Piano Series with a Saturday afternoon recital at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater centered on musical evocations of bells. While compositions from Liszt, Ravel, Messiaen, and Murail provided bell-like sounds, as did Busoni and Bauer arrangements for piano of J.S. Bach vocal works, it was the young pianist Herbert Schuch whose sensitive touch and gorgeously subdued playing rang out this day. Yet Schuch’s playing was anything but loud. During this recital, the Romanian-born Schuch brought forth subtle colors from the piano, without the quicksilver technique and sheer power that seem to be hallmarks of many of today’s most popular young pianists.

From the opening of the program, Tristan Murail’s Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire, Murail's homage to his teacher, Olivier Messiaen, Schuch began building a quiet, mesmerizing line of music that lasted nearly one hour, through two more works: selections from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S. 173, and Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s chorale prelude Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639. The subtle wave lasted in part because Schuch played with barely a pause between the compositions, never leaving the piano bench.

By failing to announce that the works were to be performed en masse, Schuch and WPA took a risk that the Hayes audience would appreciate this uncommon practice and be able to follow along. While some audience members undoubtedly were puzzled, weaving the pieces together worked beautifully in an artistic sense. Schuch’s lyricism, displayed best during the Liszt, and his gorgeous control created a continuous, compelling tension until the Bach-Busoni’s final notes brought the first half to an end. It was as if Schuch had created a single, soft musical statement, despite playing pieces from various historical periods.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Herbert Schuch is a good pianist, but he inspires more questions than answers (Washington Post, October 19)
The second half was only slightly different. Again, Schuch performed his selections without a break, and the vast majority of his playing rarely rose above mezzo-piano. There was a moment of great contrast, however, as the dramatic Funerailles selection from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses began with loud, clanging bells and later depicted a battle, with trumpet calls and horses’ hooves pounding. Schuch had little trouble transitioning from an afternoon of subtle, pianissimo playing, sitting calmly erect on the piano bench, to moments in the Liszt, where he hunched over the keyboard to produce fortissimo chords. He did so with power and executed several fast glissandi runs with impressive accuracy.

Shortly after that, though, Schuch returned to the contemplative, soft playing that dominated the recital. He concluded with La vallée des cloches, a selection from Ravel’s Miroirs. A tone painting written on three staves, it depicts a variety of ringing bells, from heavy Parisian church bells to sweet, hand-held bells. At one point Schuch crossed his left hand over his right, to flick two small bells.

The piano recitals continue later this month, when Washington Performing Arts presents András Schiff (October 26) and Evgeny Kissin (October 28).

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