GetClassical at Yamaha Piano Salon presented pianist Eric Zuber in a stirring concert April 18 in New York. In a program consisting entirely of Preludes, Zuber showed how composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries developed this short form into works of astounding creativity and force. In addition to thoughtful and virtuosic performances of Chopin, Debussy, Scriabin, and Rachmaninoff, Zuber gave us a sturdy new Prelude written for him by pianist-composer Sean Chen, and an evocative one of Zuber’s own, the first completed composition by this Boesendorfer International Piano Competition gold medalist.
The salon concerts organized by GetClassical founder Ilona Oltuski embody her vision of returning classical music to the intimate spaces in which it was usually heard during the 19th century, bringing listeners much closer to the performers than they can ever get in concert halls. They’re part of a growing do-it-yourself movement of independent promoters and artists that I’ve been lately privileged to cover.
Zuber’s own artistic vision fits the intimate-concert theme. The pianist favors a revival of the pianist-composer. In modern times, he notes, little new piano music is written by virtuoso pianists, unlike in the days of Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Brahms, to name a few. A composer who is intimately familiar with the instrument can make it speak, he believes, with the greatest authenticity and creative energy. To this end, he commissioned Chen’s Prelude in F-sharp minor and premiered it last night, with the composer in attendance along with several young pianists and other artists. One of the latter was the preternaturally talented, fashion-inspired young photographer Murlin Saint-Jean, whose work was on display in the salon.
Chen’s piece uses standard Western modes to tell an accessible modern story of sturm und drang. I thought I detected inspiration from both Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, and even a little Chopin, in this somewhat grim yet still appealing piece, in which a tranquil interval leads to an aggressively angular closing statement.
Zuber overcame a bit of nervousness to present his own virgin composition, a Prelude entitled “Migration.” Repeated fifths suggest the long, difficult “walk” of today’s millions of refugees worldwide. At the same time they call to mind some of Bartók’s music for young people. Alternating treble and bass passages represent the voices of various family members in refugee families. It’s an accomplished small work of skill, sensitivity, and promise.
But open the concert, Zuber presented five of Chopin’s brief Op. 28 Preludes. These are so familiar that playing them in concert can almost suggest an ironic intent. To me, though, they are one of the clearest windows into a pianist’s sensibility. Zuber took unusually slow tempos in No. 6 in B minor, my own favorite from my piano-student days, and the familiar “Raindrop” Prelude with its thrillingly ominous middle section. He steered clear of schmaltz and revealed the heart of the music. Prelude No. 1 in C Major – the shortest famous piano piece ever? – was a stormy blast of hyper-romance; and brilliant technique enabled him to play No. 3 in G minor as fast as is humanly possible without losing the distinctions among the individual notes.
The sometimes harsh tones of the Yamaha grand piano amid the plain rectangular room’s constrained acoustics weren’t ideal for that piece, or for similar passages in others, but the clarity of the performances shone through. The piano also gave a slightly metallic sheen to Debussy’s “Bruyeres” Prelude, which Zuber played with great sensitivity.
The violent rolling clusters and nonstop movement of the next Debussy selection, the furious “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest,” opened the doors for the famous “La cathédrake engloutie,” which Zuber also gave a very deliberate pace to highlight the innovative harmonies in these eternal chords.
After performing Scriabin’s Prelude for the Left Hand Op. 9 No. 1 sensitively and straightforwardly, Zuber then arrived at the capstone of the evening, seven Preludes from Rachmaninoff’s Op. 23. These pieces stretch the boundaries of the genre. The grand sweep of the turbulent No. 2, with its almost comically overdone ending; the gruff march of the stirring No. 5; the jolly dancing motifs of No. 3; and the moody appassionato of No. 4 all helped make this extended sequence a strong statement of a young musician’s serene skill in dense and climactic passages as well as quieter, more spacious moments.
Playing familiar pieces is a two-edged sword. It gives us an easy way in. But it also prompts us to contrast our own mental images of the music with the performer’s, and, fairly or not, we can find the latter wanting. For this listener, Zuber’s concert wanted for nothing.