Pianist’s technical prowess produces emotional performance

As part of the College’s Bösendorfer Concert series, Randall Hodgkinson’s piano performance this past Sunday was thoughtfully designed. The musician, who is a Grand Prize winner of the International American Music Competition, began the performance with Beethoven’s Sonata in D major (Op. 10, no.3) and Elliot Carter’s Sonata. Connections between the two pieces were clearly evident – what was just an idea in the Beethoven becomes fully fledged in the Carter, the rhythmic and harmonic experimentation taking the foreground and guiding the structure of the piece.

After the intermission came Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündler Dances, a group of 18 smaller pieces. The group represents the conflict between two specific characters, Florestan and Eusebius, who in turn represent the hasty and the sensitive sides of the composer’s nature. The piece sits somewhat apart from the Beethoven and the Carter, showier and more openly romantic than the two former pieces.

All three have traits that make them unusual and difficult to characterize. In his performance, Hodgkinson’s technical mastery was undisputable – he tossed off difficult passages with seemingly careless ease. His performance of the Beethoven was undeniably informed by the structure of the piece, but Hodgkinson allowed it a certain flexibility that made the piece look far more towards Carter and his contemporaries than back towards tradition.

The Beethoven is grand enough, in the way that Beethoven tends to be, but the sonata is characterized equally by a playfulness that belies the seriousness of the piece. It’s fun and a little show-off-y, playing with rhythm in a way that hints at Carter’s edgier approach, but it’s also a little introspective, focused on a feeling or idea that’s more for the player than for the show. Managing to both entertain and deny, it is hard to tell whether the Beethoven is an emotional piece or an intellectual one.

Carter’s Sonata has a structural strength and certain grandeur that echoes the Beethoven. Dazzlingly kaleidoscopic passages, played forcefully and impressively by Hodgkinson, give way to others of surprisingly lyrical beauty. The rhythmic astringency hinted at in the Beethoven gains force here – the two disparate rhythms simultaneously blasting against one another are as compelling as the modern harmonies for their sweeping quality and the power of the performance. It’s an intelligent piece, deliberately located in a program that highlights its place within the tradition in both its formal sweep and romantic tendencies.
Hodgkinson mirrored the thoughtfulness of the pieces in his playing. He was both virtuosic and restrained, intelligent but natural. His approach emphasized the structures underlying each piece without sacrificing any of their purely enjoyable quality. It was a concert to enjoy and to think about enjoying.

Hodgkinson dispatched the final work, Schumann’s Davidsbündler Dances, with ease and flair. In some ways, it’s a straightforward, romantic work, filled with lyrical passages contrasting with sections of choppier intensity. The structure of the piece is seemingly clear enough, and it’s not hard to enjoy. What makes the Schumann difficult – and what connects it to the other two – is its length. The piece runs about half an hour – not extraordinarily unusual, and its episodic nature breaks up the length and hammers it home. What is a clear structure at the onset develops in complexity and size as the piece progresses, making it monumental.

All three of the works toy with expectations, playing out along lines that hew as closely to the desires of the composer as to those of the audience. There is something curious about sitting in a concert and wondering why the composer wanted to hear something differently than you do, and if you really wanted to hear it the way you think you did. It’s the particular purview of music concerts to demand of the listener both attention and daydreaming, to spark both immediacy and introspection. The three pieces at this performance lent themselves to that task. Of the three, my favorite was the Carter; I liked its colorings, its virtuosity and its unexpected beauty. The Beethoven was good as well, and though I liked the Schumann, I found its length to be, well, long. But I liked the overall performance best.