Impromptu Concerts put on its Rising Star performance, an annual event in honor of the late Gail Williams Munder, two weeks ago at St. Paul’s. Performing was solo pianist Michael Brown. He played three selections by Francois Couperin, a sonata by Haydn, and two pieces by Maurice Ravel which looked back to those earlier composers. After intermission, he played a composition of his own, and ended with Beethoven’s “Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E-flat Major.”
Couperin and Haydn pieces may not have been the best choices to begin the concert. He played both well, and in the “Presto” movement of the Haydn his excellent technique was given a chance to emerge, but this was music of no special distinction, and the combination of very simple harmonic structure and extensive repetition tended to vitiate interest: in the Haydn there was some variation, but not enough to carry the repeats. The exception to this was the third movement of the Couperin, in which a melodic line of single notes rests on an elaborately arpeggiated accompaniment.
The concert moved to a high level with Ravel’s “Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn” and his six-movement piece, “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” These were rewarding performances. The first featured some quite lovely playing, with a flowing gentleness of touch. The second involved a good deal of playing at fast tempos, with a good rhythmic feel and no compromise with dynamics. Its final movement came across with a great deal of energy, which earned Mr. Brown a rare, post-first-set, standing ovation.
The Haydn piece presented a curiosity, in that the five notes of the theme were picked to correspond to the letters in Haydn’s name. It’s not clear to me how Ravel got that: “H” in German is B-natural, the “A” and the “D” are clear, but the “Y” and the “N?” (Bach was more fortunate in the spelling of his name, which can be translated into a harmonically sound theme, and he used it for that several times). However he arrived at that, later on he did it again with homage to his teacher, Gabriel Faure.
Mr. Brown is a composer as well as a pianist, and he opened the second set with work of his own, “Constellations and Toccata.” The first showed real musicality, especially in his fine touch in slow passages. The “Toccata,” with its fast, vigorous tempo, made demands on his technique, which he more than satisfied. One looks forward to more of his music.
Predictably, the Beethoven was the high point of the concert. The music is simple but beautiful, and Mr. Brown’s playing lived up to that, with dynamics used for dramatic effect and, again, that flowing legato, which had appeared so often earlier.
One welcome quality of the concert was Mr. Brown’s admirably sensible approach to his own pianistic technique: it is something of a relief these days to hear a young player with serious chops whose playing doesn’t constitute bragging about them. Competitive pure virtuosity, in which performance is reduced to the level of an athletic event, with subjects like a carnival in Venice or a bumblebee, has always been a distraction in music, often at the expense of all other musical values. But with the intense competition for work, even for survival, among the hugely increased number of brilliant young musicians these days, pure technique, which is one of the more easily recognized indices of musical ability, has more and more taken center stage.
Fortunately, this development does not seem to have afflicted Mr. Brown.
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