Music review: Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott shows control at the keyboard

December 2, 2013

The Phillips Collection’s Sunday Concerts series continues to uphold the highest artistic standards, presenting world-class pianist Anne-Marie McDermott last weekend. She is a superb player, both as soloist and chamber musician, and artistic director of festivals in Colorado, Florida, California and Curacao.

In two Haydn sonatas, McDermott exhibited absolute keyboard control, with finely calibrated voicing. And she fully understands how to shape a phrase; she relies perhaps too much on rubato (for Haydn, anyway), but the intentions are well thought-out.

Next came Charles Wuorinen’s Fourth Piano Sonata, written for McDermott in 2007 (the composer was in attendance Sunday). The work followed the general outlines of the standard four-movement form, which, given the content, was a blessing. Wuorinen’s music is often described as “full of ideas,” which it unquestionably is. But they are ideas untethered to any coherent musical vocabulary. Compared with the music of Elliott Carter, with whom he is sometimes grouped, Wuorinen’s music does offer a more coherent progression of textures and musical characters; there are brief rhythmic tropes one can sometimes follow, and the scherzo section kind of sounded like one, as did the slow movement. But Wuorinen’s severe, cerebral atonality tires the ear. Since listeners have not the slightest sense of expectation as to what note will come next, they eventually tune out.

McDermott finished with a stunning performance of Prokofiev’s massive Sonata No. 6 in A. A wartime work, it clangs with artillery, machinery and frantic assaults. I had to smile at the announcement that the artist had brought her own instrument, a Yamaha CSX. It indeed sounded like a CSX, but of the rail variety. The Phillips was probably happy to spare its Steinway from the pounding that this program required, though the Yamaha, for all its power, was not ideally voiced, with a middle register that often drowned out the treble.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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