Pianist Ann Schein, Playing for the Next Generation

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The pianist Ann Schein grew up in Washington and lived in suburban Maryland until a few years ago, when she moved to the New York area. She has not forgotten her old friends, however, and on Sunday afternoon she played a recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater to benefit the new Ann and Betty Schein Endowment for the Friday Morning Music Club.

The late Betty Schein was a longtime leader of the club, whose more than 750 members make it the area's largest organization of professional and amateur musicians. It presents free concerts throughout the area (and not just on Friday mornings). Daughter Ann's own membership stretches back to her student days. The new endowment will permit the awarding of a prize to an outstanding young pianist at that point when the proper support can help turn an avocation into a career.

To describe Ann Schein as an underrated pianist would be misleading. Her artistry is well known and much appreciated by her fellow musicians. Yet she deserves a wider general following than she now commands. In the 25 years I've been attending her concerts, I don't think I've ever heard her play a thoughtless or unmusical phrase.

She is always at her best in Chopin, and it was one of Chopin's late masterpieces, the "Polonaise-Fantasie," Op. 61, that began Sunday's program. This is a hybrid work -- a "polonaise" is a hearty, earthy Polish dance; a "fantasie" is an excursion into the musical yonder. The celebrated opening -- blunt chords followed by ethereal, harplike ascending passages that reach the highest register of the piano -- could not have been more luscious and poetic, and yet the dance passages, with their strict rhythms, had all the worldly pomp one could have asked for.

Elliott Carter is a musical Methuselah, still turning out valuable music at the age of 96. His Piano Sonata, one of only two extended solo pieces he has written for the instrument, is an early work -- it was completed in 1946 -- and, to this taste, not an especially compelling one, for all of its willful bigness. Much of the writing sounds like Copland at his most flinty and modernist, yet Carter indulges in such endless fussing with overtones that it finally comes across as gimmicky. Bach wrote "The Art of the Fugue"; this sounds as though Carter were trying to create "The Art of the Sostenuto Pedal," a considerably lesser challenge and one exhausted long before the sonata ends. It would be hard to fault Schein's performance, however, which combined strength, brilliance and, on occasion, a hard, blunt tone that is never to be heard in her Chopin but seemed absolutely appropriate here.

The program closed with Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Op. 58. I was especially taken by the tiny, gossamer Scherzo and the way Schein made its middle section sound almost Grieglike in its songful sentiment. Time stood wonderfully still in the great Largo; one had the sense that Chopin and Schein were going to spin out this rapturous melody forever, which made the transition into the disconsolate finale all the more tragic and arresting.

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