Poetic and elegant
International Music and Arts Society, in conjunction with the Forum for Teachers of Western Classical Music, presented American pianist Christopher Ungerer at the Alliance Française last week.
Mozart's Rondo KV511 immediately established Ungerer's very light touch. If he also appeared tentative, the reason was revealed immediately after the short single-movement piece, as he announced, "Please bear with me, as a couple of keys are sticking": testament to an underused instrument that has suffered the effects of a particularly persistent monsoon.
Ungerer's simplicity and directness of approach, coupled with an absence of any narcissism, ensured that he placed his redoubtable technique at the service of the music. Though his programme consisted of works from Classical and Romantic composers, his choice of pieces and interpretation of them made them sound alike in mood and feeling: poetic and elegant. His style and touch were never cumbersome and perhaps the predominantly lyrical quality that pervaded his repertoire resulted from that grace.
Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze is a rarely performed piece even Clara Schumann used only to risk choosing about 10 of the 18 pieces in her recital programmes. Clara is reputed to have been at Schumann's elbow figuratively speaking while he composed. In this suite, the link is directly attributable: the first piece is a simple snippet from her Mazurka Op 65/5. Schumann attributed each piece of this suite to his two fictional selves, the dreamer Eusebius, and Florestan, the man of action. Ungerer rose to the lightning changes of mood demanded by the composer, avoiding overstressed contrasts between the polarities, and maintaining textural clarity and tonal finesse. He followed through melodic lines with fluency, avoiding extremes of tempo. Schumann's segmental works Carnaval, Papillons, Kinderscenen run the risk of fragmenting into their separate parts, but Ungerer sustained the momentum so that these dances did not appear sectional.
Brahms' introspective world was explored in Variationen uber ein eigenes Thema, Op.21/1. Written in his maturity, the composer's obvious interest in the technical resources of the piano are stretched to the limit, but it is first and foremost the imaginative emotional appeal of Brahms' music that counts, and Ungerer conveyed that with elegiac expressiveness.
In rendering Beethoven's Sonata #30 in E, Op.109, Ungerer was articulate and thoughtful, but that dimension beyond mastery a hallmark of Beethoven's late sonatas was unfortunately absent. This sonata, particularly, needs a certain vigour to capture Beethoven's transcendent vitality of mind, imagination and spirit. One felt the lack of a forcefully constructed climax to the variations, and the left hand, particularly, could have been stronger in the finale.
On the whole, Ungerer's technique was not in any doubt, nor was his musical sensitivity. His restraint was evident particularly with the Romantic composers, where it is a temptation to get a little too refined or to milk phrases for `expressive effect'. However, Ungerer's performance lacked an eventful quality; one felt a certain absence of his involvement in the music, leaving the listener rather unfulfilled with the evening as a whole.
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