Wednesday, August 15, 2007

An Introspective Pianist

Given the almost encyclopedic breadth of Norman Krieger's appearances as both piano soloist and with major orchestras, I feel slightly embarrassed not to have heard of him, let alone heard any of these previous appearances. However, after the great disappointment the treatment of the art of transcription at last week's "Musical Lunch Break," Krieger's bread-and-butter program was greatly appreciated. His approach to all the works, by Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin, was highly introspective but executed in such a way that the introspection made perfect sense as a feasible stance for the composer to have taken.

Consider the Beethoven sonata, Opus 31, Number 2, that Krieger played. This has been supplied the popular name "The Tempest," based on the often repeated anecdote that, when asked about the meaning of this composition, Beethoven told his inquisitor, "Read Shakespeare's 'Tempest.'" In all fairness it should be observed that while this anecdote can be found in program and liner notes, it is absent from Thayer's biography of Beethoven, which many still take as an authority on such matters. Krieger introduced the work as being like an angel with a devil on either side, referring to the setting of the middle adagio movement in the context of the two more intense outer movements. If Beethoven, himself, was familiar with Shakespeare's play, then that middle movement could well be an invocation of Miranda, while the frenetic alternations between largo and allegro in the first movement give at least some impression of Prospero conjuring up the storm that opens the play. Assigning the final allegretto to Ariel may be a bit of a stretch. However, the movement is a perpetuum mobile; and the harsh rhetoric of the bass line can be associated with his bondage to Prospero without too much difficulty. None of this is particularly consistent with Krieger's impression of the work, but both interpretations treat each movement as a character sketch. This is where the introspection surfaces in Krieger's performance, because he was able to supplement the clarity of his technique with equally clear (and distinct) senses of personality in the three movements. Whether or not those senses of personality could be traced back to Shakespeare is less important than the fact that he thought them through well enough to realize them in performance.

The three Brahms works on the program divided between the beginning (Opus 10, Number 4, published in 1856) and end (Opus 116, Numbers 1 and 2, published in 1982) of his life. In his verbal introduction to these works, Krieger paid particular attention to the Opus 116, Number 2, which he felt was Brahms' deepest expression of loneliness. (Personally, I always found the final movement of the clarinet quintet to be Brahms at his saddest; but Krieger certainly made his case with this intermezzo.) Thus, once again the emphasis was on personality; but this time it involved the diachronic transition from the struggles of youth to a despairing old age. Again, Krieger's introspective stance served both end of this time-line equally well.

The program concluded with Chopin's Opus 23 G minor ballade. This is such a warhorse that any pianist needs to program it with a better reason than because-I-can-play-it. Chronologically, Chopin stands between Beethoven and Brahms; but his logic, grammar, and rhetoric differentiate him from both of them. Thus, what we really have is a set of snapshots across the progression of the nineteenth century but with Chopin out of his proper order. On the other hand honoring the chronology would have ended the program in that dark shadow of the Brahms intermezzo, so Krieger opted to end the program with more positive energy. This also gave him the opportunity to present Chopin in terms of a different approach to introspection, dealing particularly with a duration more sustained than either the short Brahms pieces or the individual movement of the Beethoven sonata. This is a work in which introspection can be sustained by a general sense of architecture. Krieger understood this and demonstrated it effectively in his performance.

Taken as a whole, this recital should be considered in the context of those comments by Stravinsky that I recently cited on the topic of being a good listener. Krieger's performance demonstrated his appreciation of what Stravinsky meant by being a good listener. He could then use his performance of the music of Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin to give us at least some taste of just what it meant to be a good listener to those compositions.

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