Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Pianist parades his skills

Concert review

By John K. Toedtman
Enquirer Contributor

Jon Nakamatsu is a musical maverick in the world of classical pianists. Emerging from a short-lived career as a high school German teacher, Nakamatsu made headlines in 1997 by winning the coveted Van Cliburn gold medal, and has established himself as a popular and durable concert artist ever since.

Sunday afternoon at the Xavier Classical Piano Series, Nakamatsu presented a fascinating program of both known and obscure works that demonstrated his winning brand of thoughtful, intelligent and artistic pianism.

The program began with the delightful Sonata in E Major, Op. 33, No. 3, one of more than 50 sonatas composed by Joseph Wolfl, who was a contemporary of Beethoven. Shimmering scales flowed with ease and were played with conviction and authority. The second movement possessed a limpid tone and the third movement was full of capricious spontaneity.

Papillons, Op. 2 (butterfly) by Robert Schumann is a piece full of imagination and changes in color and texture. Like all of Schumann's larger compositions for the piano, Papillons is a chain of short vignettes held together by the genius of the composer.

From the delicacy of the butterfly to the grandiose grandfather's dance that ends the ball, Nakamatsu gave the music all of the subtlety and nuance that it deserves.

The Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, Op. 28 by Felix Mendelssohn is a virtuoso piece that contains a whirlwind of notes played with ease and flourish by the pianist. Skillful use of the pedal and a keen sense of the musical architecture held this music together, but also provided plenty of excitement.

That Everest of piano sonatas, Brahms' Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5, amply filled the second half of the program. Written when Brahms was only 21 years old, the breadth and depth of his gift for composition were then already evident.

One might have wished for a bigger, more powerful tone for the opening storm, but otherwise this was a breathtakingly beautiful performance of a monumental work. After some lovely singing melodies, the massive first theme returns in a major key before the close of the movement. The "Andante" is a sweet song of love. The two note fragments of the melody were artfully strung together by the pianist. The Scherzo combined youthful exuberance with tones of steel. A brief and thoughtful Intermezzo was followed by the rambunctious and frenzied finale.

A standing ovation prompted the pianist to present as an encore the touching song by Robert Schumann entitled "Widmung," which was written for his bride-to-be and transcribed for the piano by Franz Liszt.

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