Competitions launch many a musician’s career, but usually they do not define it for long. American pianist Joel Fan got his first breaks because of competitive victories, but he has made a career on a willingness to juxtapose traditional and unexpected repertory. In a recital at Dumbarton Oaks on Monday night, he offered a program of four romantic composers, first performed at the Ravinia Festival this summer.
It was a far cry from the eclectic programs Fan has played in the past few years at the National Gallery of Art. Wagner, for example, is not a name that leaps to mind when one thinks of a piano recital, but Fan opened with a transcription of the prelude to “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” made by Glenn Gould and rearranged by Fan for a single pianist. From it, one had the sense of the romantic striving beyond what an instrument or genre can give.
This was paired with Wagner’s last piece for solo piano, composed when he was only 18 years old, the Grand Sonata in A, Op. 4. It is an embarrassing bit of juvenilia — an Italian-opera slow movement, a school-exercise fugue, a tiresome finale — that a more exacting, self-critical composer, such as Brahms, would have destroyed.
More typical romantic pianist-composers received more typical performances. The dreamy rendition of Chopin’s “Polonaise-Fantaisie” in A-flat, Op. 61, erased my bad memories of Fan’s militant Chopin heard in 2011. The six pieces of Brahms’s Op. 118 set were sometimes too stormy but were generally pleasing, while Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz” No. 1 had a raucous opening, a tender love song and a crazy coda — the sort of brash, theatrical music that suited Fan’s temperament the best.
Not all of the technical details were always in place, with trills and fast runs sometimes a little clunky, but the excessive side of the age of romanticism was well served.
Downey is a freelance writer.