Debussy: Études (Books I & II)
Duckworth: Selections from The Time Curve Preludes
Beethoven: Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata)
The more I think about it, the most I suspect that there is something in Finland’s water that has been helping the small, inconspicuous Northern European country churn out distinctively brilliant composers, such as Jean Sibelius, Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and reliably intriguing musicians, such as violinist Pekka Kuusisto and pianist Paavali Jumppanen.
It was the latter that was giving a sold-out recital in the Frick Collection’s attractive and intimate round-shaped concert hall on the Upper East Side last Sunday. Beside the exciting perspective of hearing the fast-rising musician live, I also could not help but marvel at the demanding program that included some selections from William Duckworth’s The Time Curve Preludes that were book-ended by Claude Debussy’s devilishly intricate Études and Ludwig van Beethoven’s grandly tempestuous Appassionata.
At least nobody could fault the endlessly versatile and seemingly unstoppable young pianist for lacking ambition. When most of us could only think of slowing down and taking it easy on that depressingly grey and grossly muggy Sunday afternoon, he was willingly putting himself through a couple of hours of the most technically taxing and emotionally far-reaching music in the piano repertoire. Way to go!
The salon atmosphere of the venue hall turned out to be particularly appropriate for the first works of the afternoon, namely Books I and II of Debussy’s Études. Written in historical and personal dark times as Paris was suffering under incessant German bombing and Debussy was suffering from the cancer that would bring about his demise, the two sets nevertheless exude the healthy combination of erudition and light-heartedness prevailing in the prestigious salons of the Parisian elite back then.
On Sunday afternoon, Jumppanen’s impressive sense of articulation, no doubt assiduously practiced and still feeling totally organic, produced a reading that was as clear as virtuosic. Each and every one of the twelve miniature masterpieces was handled with focused expertise, sustained stamina and loving care, turning the challenging exercise into a high-flying feat while still making it accessible to everybody.
After intermission we seamlessly moved from début de siècle France to late 1970s United States with five selections from Book I of Duckworth’s The Time Curve Preludes, a piece consisting of two books, each containing twelve fleetingly short and yet impressively substantial preludes, that by all accounts started the post-minimalist movement in earnest.
As requested by the composer, who had also been his personal coach and collaborator, before each prelude Jumppanen placed specifically designated weights on a few bass keys to generate sympathetic vibrations, which in turn created uniquely sounding “drones”. The unusual ritual has understandably been compared to playing chess on the keyboard and was as calming as the preludes were bursting with carefully organized appealing melodies and thorny rhythms.
The concert ended with a trip to 19th century Germany by way of Beethoven’s boldly imaginative and relentlessly powerful Sonata No. 23 in F Minor. It may not have been given the name “Appassionata” during the composer’s lifetime, but the later move by his publisher was nevertheless fully justified on Sunday afternoon when Jumppanen delivered a truly, well, passionate performance of it, which superbly resounded in the hushed concert hall.
That does not mean, though, that the more introspective moments were neglected as he made sure to give them all the detailed attention they deserve. After the grand ride up and down and around the magnificent structure, the grand finale exploded with memorable fire and fury, leaving us all happily overwhelmed and completely satisfied.