Rare Flurry of Piano Recitals, An Endangered Musical Format

When Dubravka Tomsic, a Slovenian pianist of a certain age, came on stage at the Society of Ethical Culture the other night in an electric blue, sequin-topped evening gown, she looked every inch a grand dame of the keyboard. She rippled through the opening piece of an all-Liszt program, the concert étude “La Leggierezza,” then disappeared backstage. When she returned, she was wearing a well-worn gray wool cardigan over the sequins, apparently to ward off a chill in the air. As the pianist launched into the next piece, Liszt’s mighty Sonata in B minor, a Russian friend of mine whispered, “We could be back in the old Soviet Union!” And so it must have been, 20 or 30 years ago on a wintry evening in some underheated auditorium far from Moscow: a small audience of several hundred people, huddled together to hear music as it was played in the old days, before the Revolution.

For some time now, I have remarked on a development that, while less dramatic than the Bolsheviks’ overthrow of the Tsar, represents a considerable loss: the disappearance of the piano recital as a staple of New York’s concert scene. Among the world’s generous supply of first-class pianists, only a handful of the most famous ones-Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel, Martha Argerich, Evgeny Kissin, Emanuel Ax, Mitsuko Uchida, András Schiff, Krystian Zimerman, Peter Serkin and Radu Lupu-are heard with anything like regularity in our major halls, and then generally not more than once a year. Piano competitions continue to turn out the next Horowitzes at an alarming rate, but how these prodigies manage to make careers is a mystery, given that virtually none of them are ever heard hereabouts.

And yet this fall, there’s been a remarkable attempt to revive the piano recital as a constant in our musical life. Since Oct. 25, a former rock producer, Chris Williamson, has been presenting distinguished but mostly unfamiliar virtuosos, in programs of often recondite works, in various small venues around town. The ticket prices are affordable ($10-$40), the settings are informal, and many of the events, in the manner of rock concerts, have featured a warm-up act by an up-and-coming pianist who has yet to make a splash. (The series reached a climax on Dec. 13 with a “Super Bowl of Rising Stars” at the Society of Ethical Culture: 20 young pianists playing 30 three-minute premieres by 30 different composers; the last recital is on Dec. 20. Information is available at rockhotelpianofest.com.) To my regret, I was able to hear only several of the programs, but each one was a revelation.

Fittingly, the series was kicked off at Ethical Culture by one of the grand masters of the keyboard, the 87-year-old American virtuoso Earl Wild, who is often called the “last of the great Romantic pianists.” He was preceded by a teenage Russian pianist, Natasha Paremski, and hearing them together gave evidence of what has happened over the past 60 years or so to this endangered musical format. Like many of today’s Wunderkinder , Ms. Paremski felt compelled to show her stuff with two knucklebusters: Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 and Stravinsky’s Petrouchka Suite. A slim blonde, she flailed away at the keyboard like Eloise throwing a tantrum, striking most of the notes with machine-gun accuracy and, for the most part, no awareness of their musical sense as links in an unfolding drama. Mr. Wild, on the other hand, was the consummate charmer in pieces by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt and himself (a transcription of Benedetto Marcello’s Adagio ). His stock-in-trade is a supreme nonchalance, which prevailed even when his enormous hands were chewing up the most difficult passages. If his playing never transcended a certain facileness, it always sounded marvelous-silkily transparent, bursting with unforced color, redolent of a time when people came to these events expecting to be ravished.

Ms. Tomsic, who is a professor of music at the Ljublijana Academy of Music and a juror at many international piano competitions, has a formidable reputation in Europe and an extensive discography, but her renown in this country has been limited to connoisseurs. Her program in the dry, unforgiving acoustics of the Ethical Culture hall showed her to be, without question, one of the great living pianists, perhaps the preeminent successor to Artur Rubinstein, with whom she studied privately and whose hallmarks-a commanding “singing” line, a directness of utterance and a kind of inborn naturalness-she shares. If she lacked Rubinstein’s impetuosity, that sense of sheer exhilaration that distinguishes the immortal pianists, she held the small audience rapt with her sorcery. She delivered a broad range of Liszt’s effusions, from the delicate (“Un sospiro”) to the brash (Mephisto Waltz No. 1), giving full due to their fantastic opulence without a trace of gaudiness. She’s an artist who should be filling Carnegie Hall, but who, in today’s music world, probably won’t be given the chance.

For me, the great discovery of the series has been Andrew Rangell, an American pianist who has long been considered a local hero in the Boston area, where he lives and teaches, but whose wider reputation was curtailed by a hand injury that kept him away from the recital stage during most of the 90′s. In an age when too many products of our conservatories are cookie-cutter versions of each other, Mr. Rangell-like the younger Boston pianist Max Levinson, who preceded him in a lucid account of Bach’s Partita No. 4-is an individualist. A compact, bookish-looking man in his early 50′s, he has some odd physical mannerisms, including a habit of dropping his right arm and shaking out the hand, perhaps to relax the injured muscles. Remarkably, none of this impeded his considerable virtuosity. And such was his intensity-like the late Glenn Gould, he seemed to be propelled by an irresistible force-that the listener’s attention was riveted to the music.

In the manner of a previous generation of pianists who were strangers to “theme” or single-composer programs, Mr. Rangell’s choices ranged all over the map, from the early 17th century (Sweelinck’s Variations on “My Young Life Has an End”) to Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue; from an unfamiliar masterwork in a rich neo-Brahmsian vein by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (Suite, Op. 45) to Janácek’s “October 1, 1905″ Sonata, five Chopin mazurkas and George Enescu’s daunting Sonata in F sharp minor, which places extreme demands on the pianist’s emotional and technical resources, and then some. Mr. Rangell addressed all of it with an openness that seemed at times almost naked. This was honest, forthright playing in the best American sense; I also heard an affinity with jazz in his muscular, sharply pronounced way with rhythm.

There were perhaps 80 listeners at Mr. Rangell’s recital, but as a friend of mine said on the way out: “I feel like that English poet who said after a great meal, ‘Fate cannot harm me, I have dined tonight.’”