Visiting pianist inspires with eclectic selection

Gilles Vonsattel, a Swiss-American concert pianist, has played in world-famous spaces including New York City’s Alice Tully Hall, Boston’s Sympony Hall, Cleveland’s Severance Hall, Geneva’s Victoria Hall, Paris’ Musée d’Orsay and the Library of Congress, to name a few. Last Sunday, he played a four-piece program in our own Chapin Hall. His performance was an intimate, afternoon event as part of a series of Visiting Artist concerts sponsored and arranged by the College’s department of music.

Vonsattel took the stage quietly and without introduction. Met with some brief applause from the crowd, he immediately dove into Ludwig van Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126. Published in 1825, the Bagatelles were Beethoven’s last pieces composed for piano. Using the College’s beautiful Bösendorfer grand piano, Vonsattel played with an incredibly light and agile touch. The Bagatelles consisted of six movements, each of which assumed a wholly different character and tone than the last. The first movement, “Andante con moto, cantabile e con piacevole” was a soft and florid introduction, while the sixth movement, “Presto-Andante amabile e con moto,” featured loud, staccato jolts of sound. Vonsattel breathed life into the drama of this piece, seamlessly gliding between the aggressive keystrokes of one movement to the smooth fluidity of another.

Vonsattel’s performance style was physical and mesmerizing, but not overwrought. Playing these Bagatelles entirely from memory, with bowed head and closed eyes, he rocked back and forth on the piano bench pounding out Beethoven with obvious passion. Even someone unfamiliar with chamber music would be thoroughly impressed by Vonsattel’s pure skill and energy. He expressed the prelude, building tension, climax and denouement with sharp changes in volume, pressure and speed. In an interview with Eric Friesen that was quoted in the program, Vonsattel comments on the patchy, somewhat hectic dynamics in the Bagatelles: “Laced with a quirky, almost unstable humor, violent outbursts coexist with a gentle lyricism so often found in Beethoven’s last compositions.” For this reason, he chose the piece as a means of priming the audience for the next part of his program: Heinz Holliger’s Partita.

Composed in 1999, Partita is a clear departure from traditional chamber music. In introducing the piece, Vonsattel explained that there would be violent, elemental outbursts throughout the piece mixed with “a pure, hovering feeling.” Partita depicted a feud of sorts, not unlike the one present in the Bagatelles. Vonsattel interpreted “a sense of disaster from all the complexity followed by a lilting, lyrical aftermath” in this piece. Vonsattel stayed true to all of the meaning and drama that he promised there would be, as Partita opened with an extremely unconventional first movement. “Praeludium” (“Innere Stimme”) consists of mostly extra-musical sounds and long, ominous pauses. Basically, Vonsattel used every part of the piano besides the keys. He strummed and slapped the steel-wire bass strings and drummed the wooden frame for percussion. The piece was grating and dissonant, not particularly pleasant to listen to. Holliger surely sought to elicit discomfort from his audience, creating a sense of impending doom. Vonsattel was also successful in drawing out this reaction. The modern, abstract piece marched on with a strange melody punctuated by short stops and off-kilter bursts of noise. Vonsattel proved that the instrument has much more capacity for sound than just in its keys and pedals. He played this challenging piece effectively, conveying the chaotic beauty of the tempestuous composition.

The second half of the concert centered on the French composer, Maurice Ravel. A renowned figure of the Impressionist music movement, Vonsattel chose two well-known Ravel pieces, Sonatine and Gaspard de la Nuit and played a short piece by Swiss composer, Artur Honegger called Hommage à Ravel, in between. While all beautiful, the anchor of this second half was Gaspard de la Nuit, one of Ravel’s most acclaimed compositions and equally as challenging as Partita to execute well. The three movements are each based on eponymous poems by Aloysius Bertrand: Ondine, Le gibet and Scarbo. Vonsattel charged through them with the same attention for detail and sensitivity to the emotional grounding of the piece. The organization of this piece is very intriguing. Two mystical poems about water nymphs (Ondine) and goblins (Scarbo) flanked a very grave, very real poem about a human corpse hanging in the desert (Le gibet). The quirky dissonance and collapsing melodies that we heard in the program’s first two pieces return in Ondine and Scarbo. They both took on a dream-like quality, while there was an ominous orderliness and monotony to the second movement, Le gibet. Vonsattel obviously saved the best for last with this triumph of a piece.

Gilles Vonsattel selected a provocative and difficult program for Sunday’s concert, showcasing his incredible versatility as a pianist. The department of music has arranged outstanding Visiting Artist events for students this year, and Vonsattel certainly ranks among the best.