One doesn't dabble in 19th-century piano repertoire: Either you commit yourself to it and go all the way or you might as well leave it alone. Clearly, Thomas Pandolfi is thoroughly committed. His recital at the Phillips Collection on Sunday revealed an artist who is the master of both the grand gesture and the sensual line.
His program was the selection of a thinker--pieces by Liszt, Scriabin, Schubert, Barber and Tchaikovsky that called for musical imagination along with athleticism and restraint along with stormy declamation.
Pandolfi's large-scale pianism seems to emerge out of careful thought and close concentration. The fact that his playing always seemed under tight control in no way muted the passion of his performance, but it did lend shape and coherence to what might otherwise have seemed merely stormy eruptions.
The middle section of the opening "Apres une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata," S. 161, by Liszt was projected with an exquisite sense of lyrical gesture. The Scriabin D-flat Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2, for left hand alone was wonderfully transparent and nicely shaped. Pandolfi handled the rhythmic asymmetry of Barber's Ballade, Op. 46 (a 20th-century composition with roots firmly grounded in the 19th century), smoothly and always on the front end of the beat. His reading of the Schubert A Minor Sonata, D. 537, was lighthearted and exceptionally articulate.
As for the performance space itself, the Phillips needs to address a problem that arises from its being an art museum: A large part of the audience attends a bit of concert as a diversion from gallery-visiting and then wanders off. The performers deserve better than this.
Betty Ann Miller
"From Parlor to Pulitzer" was the title of Betty Ann Miller's program Sunday of piano works at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She gave a thoughtful hearing to 20th-century compositions by women, music that has won Guggenheims and MacDowell Colony appointments.
The artists ranged from the better known Amy Beach, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Louise Talma (covering 1903 to 1943) to the relatively little-heard Shulamit Ran, Judith Lang Zaimont and Chen Yi (1976 to 1983). Even more perspective would have been gained by including something written in the late '90s.
Beach's pieces are folkloric fantasies and sentimental reflections on nature suited to the private salon. Seeger's abstract samples border on expressionism and toy artfully with contrapuntal devices. In her First Sonata, Talma's writing ebbs and flows in density between myriad textures and contrasting harmonies.
Ran's program notes on her "Hyperbolae" seem to promise more than the music gives--a series of disjointed forays into dissonant space. Pleasant Chopinesque reminiscences surface in Zaimont's "Nocturne"; Chen Yi's "Duo Ye" is poised between Eastern melodic and Western harmonic idioms.
Miller addressed these works competently and carefully. But a more comprehensive sense of direction and overall architecture is needed if this music is to become the stuff of repertoires. Miller tended to cling merely to loud and soft or fast and slow, with few gradations of expression in between.