Better with the Russians than with Bach
By Terry McQuilkin
Published: Friday, July 13, 2007
Pianist Bernd Glemser, who offered an intriguing and unusual program as a part of the Oregon Bach Festival's "Intimate Evenings'' series, has an affinity for the Russians. At least that is what one would conclude after hearing him play Wednesday evening at the Hult Center.
The first half of the generous program was the least conventional. The German pianist selected four pairs of preludes and fugues from Johann Sebastian Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier" and four such pairs from Dimitri Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, alternating those by Bach with those by Shostakovich. I approached this concert expecting a bit of a stylistic disconnect.
It turns out that his groupings worked surprisingly well. The sequence of keys that Glemser chose, as well as the way in which pieces of similar or contrasting mood were juxtaposed, produced a cogent set, and helped mitigate the differences in musical language between works written 230 years apart.
Glemser proved far more convincing interpreting Shostakovich's music than Bach's. He began his prelude-and-fugue set with Bach's G Major Prelude and Fugue from WTC Book I - a fine choice to start, but he played it too fast.
In the fugue that followed, and indeed in all of the Bach preludes and fugues he offered, Glemser opted for an approach that placed profound importance on every note, yet paid little heed to any sense of musical line. He exhibited remarkable control and astounding consistency of tone even at the softest dynamic levels, but imparted to the listener almost no feeling of linear direction. To compound matters, Glemser had an inexplicable tendency to insert subtle but inappropriately placed rubatos in the music.
Glemser's account of Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues had much more heart. He effectively conveyed the pathos of the E Minor Prelude, the peaceful optimism of the Prelude and Fugue in A-flat, and the carefree energy of the D-flat major pair, which proved an effective conclusion to the whole group of preludes and fugues.
The second half of the program consisted entirely of works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, a composer well-represented in Glemser's discography. The pianist brought a great deal of subtlety, telling shape and impressive virtuosity to four "Morceaux de Fantasie,'' Op. 3 (there are actually five in the set). He exhibited a wide dynamic range, although from where I was sitting in Soreng Concert Hall (in what I thought was a good seat in the mezzanine), all volume levels seemed a bit subdued. I'm still trying to figure out the Soreng and its quirks, but I suspect the problem might have been the Fazioli piano on which Glemser played, rather than the hall.
Variations on a Theme of Corelli, the most substantial complete piece on the recital, followed. The Iberian tune, "La Folia," (not composed by, but used by Arcangelo Corelli in a sonata) serves as the basis for 20 skillfully wrought variations. Glemser made the most of the work's many striking contrasts in mood, tempo, mode and texture, imparting an effervescent weightlessness to the dancelike variations, sensitive poeticism to the lyrical ones, and emotionally charged energy to the vigorous ones. He also shaped the entire work artfully, communicating a feeling of continuous drive to the final variation, which leads into the subdued coda that caps the work perfectly.
Glemser rounded off the program with the Barcarolle in G Minor and the "Etude-Tableau" in D Major, Op. 39, No. 9 (moving without pause from one to the other). Superior control, clarity and a great sense of flow marked his reading of the Barcarolle. To the "Etude-Tableau" he brought vigor and a rich palette of tone color.
As an encore, Glemser delivered Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 32, No. 12, with panache.