Pianist brings clarity to rhythmic complexity


Last night in Shriver Hall, pianist Ursula Oppens played what must have been, for her, a light program: It included Beethoven's relatively obscure Fantasy in G Minor (Opus 77), as well as that composer's last and greatest (and one of his thorniest) piano sonatas; two canons by that master sadist of rhythmic complexity, Conlon Nancarrow; and some Ravel that included the composer's own piano transcription of "La Valse" -- a piece so difficult that it can make even the Technicolor terrors of "Scarbo" seem like a G-rated movie.

But Oppens has practically been canonized by living composers as St. Ursula. She is a pianist so courageous in regard to musical difficulties that she thinks nothing of programming long works by Charles Wuorinen and Elliot Carter on the same evening and so technically accomplished that she may be the only pianist who has ever mastered Carter's all but unplayable piano concerto.

But if yesterday's Shriver Series recital represented what was a light summer's evening of music for Oppens, it was a satisfying one for her small, but enthusiastic audience. In the two Nancarrow pieces, which were written for her, she was unintimidated by their rhythmic difficulties -- which call for different meters in each hand -- their demands for almost inhuman velocity and their extremely complex counterpoint. While these pieces can threaten a listener with a headache, Oppens was able to make the most of their cheeky charm and textural variety.

The pianist gave a lovely account of Beethoven's little G minor Fantasy, making the rondo theme that emerges toward its conclusion break like the sun from the composer's murkily zany chords. In the Sonata in C Minor (opus 111), Oppens wisely opted for energy rather than for trying to achieve grandeur. This was an exciting performance -- marred by a touch of rhythmic instability in the first movement and by a momentary lapse in concentration in the final one -- that made this thrice familiar music sound revolutionary and visionary in the way that its composer must have intended.

Ravel's "Valses Nobles et Sentimentales" and "La Valse," which were played without interruption, were impressively clear and logically argued. While these performances -- along with an encore of Debussy "Reflets dans l'eau" -- impressed her audience, I was less convinced. Oppens' readings of French impressionist repertory remind me of those of Charles Rosen, though she plays these works with much greater pianistic resources. She emphasized the line and shape of the music, rather than its color and its atmosphere. While this is surely within interpretive license, it is a little like admiring Monet or Seurat for their draftsmanship.

The concert was dedicated to the memory of the late Dr. Albert I. Mendeloff, a man who was a splendid physician, a knowledgeable music lover and a great friend of music in Shriver Hall specifically and in Baltimore generally.

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