In ambitious program, Lessner’s energy wanes

Daniel Lessner, piano soloist and professor of piano at the University of Southern California, tackled an ambitious program on Saturday night in the second concert of the Bösendorfer series at Chapin Hall. Rather than performing several short solo pieces, he presented two large works: Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. The structure of both works consists of variations on a theme, but the composers approached their compositions with distinctly different styles.

The first half of the concert featured Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations. Supposedly, Bach wrote the piece for a count who suffered from insomnia, but no one in the audience could have fallen asleep during Lessner’s riveting performance. One of the hallmarks of Bach’s compositions is a constant stream of music with hardly any rest for the performer within each variation. Any technical mistake is a treacherous pitfall that is hard to cover up. However, Lessner used the unrelenting nature of the piece to his advantage and conveyed a sense of tensile energy throughout the nearly hour-long performance.

Sometimes his abundance of energy translated into sloppy passages but more often it resulted in brilliant playing. While most of the fast movements were impressive and played at virtuosic, Glenn Gould-like tempi, Lessner showed his real talent in the gorgeous slow movements. His sensitivity shone through especially at the close with the “Aria da capo,” the repeat of the original theme. Even though the “Aria da capo” is exactly identical to the original “Aria,” Lessner successfully translated Bach’s ineffable intent of making it somehow different and more meaningful the second time around.

Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, the second half of the concert did not live up to the first. Lessner may have simply been exhausted by the concentration required by the Bach. He looked physically spent at the end of the first half, with sweat dripping from his shaggy bangs. The number of technical mistakes during the second half, especially at the beginning, showed that he must have been mentally wiped out as well. The audience needed the break of intermission to recover from the experience, never mind the performer, so I certainly don’t blame him for running out of steam.

Regardless of Lessner’s stamina, it was a poor programmatic choice to present a set of lesser-known Schumann etudes right after one of the masterworks of the piano repertoire. The Schumann is an inherently more superficial piece than the Bach. Lessner merely hammered through the stereotypically fast, loud Romantic showpiece and did not exhibit half the sensitivity he achieved with the Bach. The program would have been more effective had he played the Schumann etudes first, or replaced them with some smaller, less demanding works.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Bösendorfer series, which features solo pianists in Chapin Hall, is how each artist uses the same instrument. Every pianist faces the challenge of performing on a piano different from the one he practiced on; to a certain extent, the concert series focuses on how each pianist handles the College’s piano rather than on the pianist himself. Jon Nakamatsu, the soloist of the first concert in the series on March 11, excelled in producing the softest dynamics and lightest touch but couldn’t channel all the potential forte power of the instrument. Lessner, on the other hand, created more dynamic contrast. While he did not reach the softest piano dynamics that Nakamatsu did, he had a wider range from soft to loud.

While the artists come and go, the Bösendorfer piano will remain, and I for one cannot wait to hear who the College will present to tackle the beast next year.