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Benjamin Hochman’s piano playing is nuanced at Phillips Collection

By Robert Battey,

Israeli-born pianist Benjamin Hochman, although young, has distinguished himself in chamber music, particularly appearing with members of the Guarneri, Tokyo and Orion quartets; the Zukerman Chamber Players; and in a Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society residency. Success in this field requires a sense of listening and pacing that purely solo-oriented pianists don’t need.

But these qualities were conspicuously present in Hochman’s solo recital Sunday afternoon at the Phillips Collection. Schubert’s weighty D Sonata, D. 850 (Op. 53), is spread on a vast canvas — he’s established F by the eighth bar — and encompasses uncountable layers of emotional states, many of them ambiguous. Hochman navigated his way through this labyrinth convinced and convincingly for the most part.

Hochman understood that the harmony often suggests nuances that are not in the score, and he counted carefully. His phrases didn’t always feel natural; gentle metric impulses can help make sense of Schubert’s more complex lines. But in this and in the Brahms intermezzo that he played as an encore, Hochman demonstrated great sensitivity and care for form and musical direction.

The recital got off to a poor start with “Idyll und Abgrund: Six Schubert Reminiscences” by Joerg Widmann. Hochman’s programming choice here was disappointing. Having a thematic tie-in to the Schubert sonata was a thin excuse for this silly piece’s inclusion. Composers throughout history have amused and enriched themselves by adapting and refracting the works of predecessors, be it Liszt/Mozart, Brahms/Handel, Stravinsky/Gesualdo or Paganini/Lutoslawski. But Widmann’s effort did nothing more than evoke an aural image of a drunken pianist, late at night, unable to remember his notes (or hit them if he did), nonetheless trying to play some Schubert, substituting tone clusters for most chords, at times becoming frustrated or petulant. Why?

Battey is a freelance writer.

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