Pianist Gilles Vonsattel’s dark program speaks to ‘Master of the Night’ exhibit at the Freer


Pianist Gilles Vonsattel’s interwoven program goes beyond tying “Moonlight” sonata to “Master of the Night” woodblock exhibit. (Neil Greentree/Neil Greentree)
June 6, 2014

Linking a concert to an art exhibit can be illuminating: Find the connections between composers and painters of a particular era, and you often discover something new about both. That was the premise behind Thursday night’s concert at the Freer Gallery, when the pianist Gilles Vonsattel performed music by Western composers that would have been performed in late 19th-century Japan, when the artist Kobayashi Kiyochika was creating a series of woodblock prints now on exhibit at the Freer. The connection may have been a bit thin, but in the end, it didn’t matter. Vonsattel chose such a thoughtful and tightly knit program, so rich in internal musical references, shared themes and surprising cross-connections, that any link to Japanese art seemed almost incidental.

The Kiyochika exhibit is titled “Master of the Night,” and Vonsattel chose a suitably dark program with Beethoven at its heart. After tossing off the six Bagatelles, Op. 126, he moved into the more complex waters of the Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op 27 No. 2 — better known as the “Moonlight.” Its famous first movement has suffered no end of sappy interpretations, but Vonsattel brought out a more probing, somber, even funereal side in a performance that was often spellbinding. The second movement was oddly polite, and the final movement might have used a little more wild-eyed ferocity. But you got the sense that Vonsattel is more interested in ideas than in stormy passion, and more power to him: This is a thinking person’s pianist.

The darkness got even darker in Liszt’s wonderfully morbid “Pensee des Morts” (from Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses, S. 173). Sounding of tolling funeral bells, and so closely tied to the Beethoven sonata that it even quotes it, the work is a brooding meditation on death, and it was fascinating to hear it between the Beethoven and Olivier Messiaen’s “Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu (Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell)” — a work of palpable spirituality, full of far more hope and celestial light than the title might suggest.

Schumann’s Arabeske in C, Op. 18, provided a pleasant interlude, followed by six pieces from Debussy’s two books of “Images” — chosen, perhaps, to echo the bells (“Cloches a travers les feuilles”) of the Liszt and the impressions of water (“Reflets dans l’eau”) and moonlight (“Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut”) that have long been associated with the “Moonlight” sonata. Vonsattel took a refreshingly full-blooded approach to the works, delicate and precise but without the relentless shimmer that can make Debussy seem gauzy, and he closed (extending the water theme even further) with Liszt’s “Les jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este.”

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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