In playing some path-breaking works by Beethoven and Debussy for a capacity audience at Rockville’s Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington on Sunday, pianist Brian Ganz chose an approach that was commanding yet thoughtful and totally musical. Ganz’s dazzling and informed playing captured the essence of each piece while making every selection his own. For the program, he tackled works by Beethoven and Debussy that, in their day, turned the musical world 360 degrees in visionary dimensions of harmony, melody and structure. And his brief comments about the music were meaningful and devoid of showmanship.
Even today, Ganz’s program opener, Beethoven’s “Grande Sonate Pathétique, Op. 13,” remains enigmatic. But the pianist’s fingers, even his whole body language, propelled the listener into the music’s distant reaches of wildly emotive harmonies and treated Beethoven’s delicate moments of passionate lyricism with a gentle legato.
In contrast, Beethoven’s Sonata in E, Op. 109, especially its final movement, is a blazing call of triumph. Beethoven opened it with a marvelously hymn-like theme enlisted as the basis of a chain of six impossibly complex variations. Here, Ganz attacked the keyboard headlong, heralding the heights of the composer’s struggle to express the inexpressible.
Wedging some Debussy selections between the Beethoven sonatas, Ganz chose three selections from the first series of “Images” and the opening book of “Préludes.” “Reflets dans l’eau” was a marvel of rippling sonorities, while the pianist gave a firm sense of continuity in music that revealed some of the many styles Debussy had absorbed, including a passage eerily foreshadowing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” And the hazy textures paired with utterly sensuous harmonies echoed the Wagnerian bent of the French symbolist poets and painters that Debussy knew and admired.
The audience loved the performance and won a tiny Chopin encore. (Ganz is in the midst of presenting all of Chopin’s works at Bethesda’s Strathmore Music Center.)
Porter is a freelance writer.