New York City- In a week when the Academy Award for Best Documentary went to a film about a man climbing a 3,000-foot cliff without a rope, an analogous musical event took place at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall Tuesday night.
Citing “a preoccupation with testing the limits of what is physically possible by any one pianist sitting at the instrument,” Jason Hardink dispatched, from memory, as much of the gnarliest piano music from Liszt to Xenakis as would fit into a two-hour program.
Yes, it sounds like a stunt, but as both the concert (presented by Key Pianists) and the film demonstrated, one man’s stunt is another man’s spiritual quest—or as Hardink put it in his program notes, “a glimpse of the beyond, a spiritual territory brought to light by a deep musical striving for the seemingly impossible.”
Certainly there was no questioning the musical depth of his companions on that quest—besides the ur-virtuoso Franz Liszt and the bristling modernist Iannis Xenakis, there were the visionaries Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen and a present-day embracer of complexity, Jason Eckardt.
The pianist’s response to their daunting scores was both technically impressive and impressively serious. As promised, Hardink kept his eyes on the musical prize all evening—no show-biz shaking of locks to distract from the sounds he was creating.
By his account, Hardink used to scorn virtuoso piano music as “gauche and vapid.” It was a performance of Eckardt’s fire-and-ice Echoes’ White Veil that turned him on to the possibilities of daredevil piano playing.
Hardink led off his program with that piece Tuesday night. Sounding a bit like a processed version of Art Tatum, the pianist sent sprays of notes all over the keyboard, light and blindingly fast, punctuated by stabbing accents. In contrast, a glacially slow middle section invited the listener to savor the long decay of a piano chord after it has been struck. It was easy to understand why Eckardt’s piece, inspired by W.S. Merwin’s prose poem “Echoes,” might bowl over a young “serious” pianist.
Debussy’s Images, Book II, pose challenges of a more elusive kind: finding equivalents in piano tone for such synesthetic titles as “Bells through the leaves” and “And the moon descends on the temple that was,” and making a meaningful whole of the composer’s fleeting inspirations. Only the glittering final piece, “Golden fishes,” seemed to fit the evening’s athletic agenda.
While artfully suggesting the undulation of leaves and the ping of near and distant bells, Hardink’s performance of the first piece had two or three layers of tone when it could have used six or eight. That’s a lot to ask, but this was a program about asking a lot.
The pianist adopted a misty, gray tone throughout “And the moon,” evidently to put a pale wash of moonlight over the whole scene—a picturesque choice, but it made it difficult to project a sense of the music’s direction.
More blithe ripples and spray sprang forth in the last piece, amid flashy forte bursts. These were not goldfish from the pet store, but awesome mythical beasts. Hardink’s pedaling, sensitive and expert all night, here produced voluminous wet washes and staccato spatters. After the delicate jewelry work of the first two pieces, Debussy here invites the pianist to virtuoso it up a little, but despite his technical prowess the serious Mr. Hardink apparently still had his reservations about showing off.
According to the pianist’s program notes, the title of Xenakis’s Evryaliis both the Greek word for “open ocean” and the name of one of the three mythological Gorgons, female monsters with snakes for hair. But La Mer this wasn’t—more like “Great Balls of Fire,” as chattering right-hand chords and deep, driving left-hand riffs pounded out a kind of ecstatic, atonal boogie.
Hardink reveled in the piece’s stark contrasts: pianissimo vs. fortissimo, pedal-smeared vs. crisp, middle pitches vs. the extreme ends of the keyboard. Voicing was hardly the point here, but in any case the piano sounded good and very Steinway, with its plinky top and roaring bass.
Although his technique was up to the job in four “transcendental” etudes by Liszt, the pianist didn’t quite make the stylistic shift to a Romantic sound and sweep. The demonic shudders and jets of fire in the F minor Etude came chattering out like Liszt-via-Xenakis. Although the charm and wit of “Feux follets” (Will-o’-the-wisp) didn’t come through, Hardink’s ability to shape and shade phrases at extremely fast speeds continued to amaze.
The title alone of “Harmonies du soir” (Evening harmonies) implies a rich tonal palette, but despite excellent timing, phrasing, and pedaling, the pianist came up short on tone colors for this pre-Impressionist piece. “Wilde Jagd” (Wild Hunt) alternately crashed through the underbrush and strutted down the road, but Hardink’s strong concept would have come through better with more sing in its jaunty tune.
The same could be said of “Christmas Carillon,” the first excerpt from Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jésus (Twenty contemplations of the Christ Child),
in which booming bass bells alternated with somewhat faint lyrical sections. But the pianist’s jazz-like attack was just right for the chiming chords, pompous angels, and insistently chirping birds of “Contemplation of the Angels.”
No one wrote music of utter stillness like Messiaen. Performing “The Kiss of the Infant Jesus,” with its page after page of simple, slow chords, Hardink earned top marks for concentration, somewhat lower ones for inducing concentration in others. But if his tone was less than arresting at first, the right-hand filigree later in the piece sparkled fetchingly.
The pianist projected a powerful, well-paced concept of the volatile closing piece, “Contemplation of the Spirit of Joy.” It seemed as though the whole recital was being recapitulated—the jazzy rhythms, the digital wizardry, the driving repeated chords, the dizzy leaps, the pealing bells —before the weary piano climber finally put a well-trained hand over the top of the cliff.