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Andrew von Oeyen, Keenly Attuned to Liszt's Grand Design

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007

The Washington Performing Arts Society's celebrated Hayes Piano Series has been curiously hit-or-miss this season, but it concluded triumphantly Saturday afternoon with a smart, varied and altogether engrossing recital by Andrew von Oeyen at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that von Oeyen played the finest all-around performance of Franz Liszt's Sonata in B Minor that I have heard in many years. The late critic Claudia Cassidy once observed that Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 is "cheap unless it is magnificent." Likewise, this sonata -- a full half-hour of it, give or take a couple of minutes -- can come over as gaseous and overwrought, a succession of murky phantasms constructed on top of pretty flimsy musical material.

But von Oeyen's performance was different. He played with energy and clarity, wasting no time mooning over passing lovelinesses, always keeping his focus on the grand design. The result was like clearing away accumulated grime on a 19th-century canvas: For once, the sonata seemed both organic and sensible, and I was even sorry to hear it come to an end. (That is a rarity with this score, which sometimes calls to mind Samuel Johnson's wonderful comment about "Paradise Lost": "No one ever wished it longer.")

Von Oeyen has studied with a wide variety of teachers, including Alfred Brendel, Leon Fleisher, Herbert Stessin and Jerome Lowenthal. Perhaps this is one reason he seems to be a different pianist in every piece he plays -- and I do not mean that as a cut. Rather, he adapts his talents to the music at hand: His playing was delightfully spare, lithe and airborne in Haydn's Sonata in E-flat (Hob. XVI: 49), and then took on a new and hitherto unsuspected gravity and majesty in Chopin's Nocturne in E-flat (Op. 55, No. 2).

And then he exploded into the opening movement, "With Drums and Pipes," of Bartok's "Out of Doors Suite" -- rude, noisy and exhilarating music that almost sounds as though the piano is being played with the "drums and pipes" enumerated in its title. But the real joy came with the wonderfully weird fourth movement, a nocturne as unlike Chopin as one could imagine, complete with spot-on pianistic imitations of birds, bugs and frogs, and a loamy and magical phosphorescent glow.

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