From Pianist Tanya Bannister, A Smart, Lyrical Performance

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007

With all of the activity on the Mall Saturday afternoon -- and another brief spate of midwinter warmth on top of that -- it was difficult to stay indoors, and so it came as no surprise that the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater was not quite filled to capacity for Tanya Bannister's recital.

Nevertheless, it was a fine concert, the latest in a string of them produced by the Washington Performing Arts Society as part of its Hayes Piano Series. Taking into account the mezzo-soprano Susan Graham's recital on Friday and the latest offering from the Vocal Arts Society last night, this would have been a good weekend to set up camp at the Terrace Theater.

Nothing on the program was hackneyed. Robert Schumann was represented by his first published piece, the Variations on the Name "Abegg"; there were two selections from Isaac Albéniz's "Iberia" but not the usual ones; and Brahms was represented by one of his best piano works -- the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, a work of such crushing difficulty that it must be a decade since I last heard it played in concert.

Suzanne Farrin's "This Is the Story She Began" (the title comes from Ovid) was written specifically for Bannister, and proved a terrific virtuoso showpiece in her hands. If you can imagine the dense, perfumed chords of Olivier Messiaen's piano music combined with the clangorous, insistent, near-pictorial tone-clusters of Frederic Rzewski's "Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues," you will have some idea of what Farrin's work sounds like. Yet it transcends its derivations to leave a distinct impression of its own.

The Australian composer Carl Vine's "Five Bagatelles" deftly combine abstract harmonies and modernist rigor with a clarity of expressive purpose that makes them immediately attractive: the spare last movement, "Threnody," was especially effective.

"Three Romances" by Clara Schumann, Robert's wife and one of the great pianists and pedagogues of the 19th century, sounded curiously like prefigurations of the music of Edvard Grieg -- charming, tuneful, welling miniatures that could probably go on for half an hour or more and still remain decidedly miniature. Lest that sound like a putdown, remember how much more appeal there is in a simple, tidy four-line verse than in many a windy and ambitious epic.

Throughout the afternoon, Bannister played with intelligence, poetry and proportion. Her tone occasionally took on a hard quality in strenuous passages, but such moments were rare. I was particularly impressed by the way she gave all of the Brahms variations their own splendid little lives and characters while yoking them firmly into a grander totality.

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