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Review: Aaron Kurz piano recital at Christ’s College

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After his amazing performance of Prokofiev’s 3rd piano concerto with the City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra the previous evening, pianist Aaron Kurz gave a solo recital at Christ’s College on Sunday afternoon (December 5).

His first choice was the 5th of Scriabin’s ten sonatas which make up an esoteric and extensive contribution to piano literature. Forming the nucleus of his output, they trace the musical transformation of Scriabin from a nineteenth-century composer, strongly influenced by Chopin, to a mystical avant-gardist who created a private world of tenuous visions and soaring aspirations. Kurz’s performance of this relatively unfamiliar work, marking a crux in the composer’s journey, captivated the audience.

Aaron Kurz, pianist. (53576849)
Aaron Kurz, pianist. (53576849)

The combination of young pianist, grand piano and Scriabin couldn’t fail to bring to this reviewer’s mind the 11 year-old Vladimir Horowitz whose uncle, a one-time student of Scriabin’s, arranged for his nephew to meet and play for the composer. Afterwards, Scriabin, in one of the greatest understatements ever, told Horowitz’s mother, “your son will be a pianist”.

In 1986, the 83 year-old Horowitz returned to Russia after many years absence, and on a memorably touching occasion during the visit sat at Scriabin’s piano to play an Étude of the composer’s in the presence of his then elderly daughter.

Scriabin headed the printed text of Sonata 5 with an excerpt from his ‘Poem of Ecstasy’ which outlines his expressive intentions in the music. In Kurz’s next choice of composer we returned to the earlier sources of Scriabin’s inspiration and to poetry again in Liszt’s piano transcriptions of his own song settings of 3 of the sonnets of Petrarch.

Aaron Kurz, pianist. (53576852)
Aaron Kurz, pianist. (53576852)

Kurz visibly loved these pieces where Liszt clearly saw elements of his own life and temperament in Petrarch’s story. Sonnet 104, ‘Pace non trovo’, whose melody is comparatively well-known, is flanked by two others which reveal the profoundly thoughtful, passionate and erotic nature of Liszt and not the extravagant virtuosity with which he is commonly identified. Kurz’s delivery showed both sympathy and elegance as he immersed himself in these complex and beautiful expressions of the composer’s soul.

Two contemporary works by Cambridge mathematician John S.Wilson, Fellow of Christ’s and Honorary Professor of Leipzig University, followed on, and were stylishly performed by Kurz who, one must suppose, is relatively new to them. The first, entitled ‘Atlantic Bridge’, as the programme notes explained, reflected a sense of connections with peoples abroad with whom bridges can be made and whose cultures can be understood and assimilated. This was an attractive, lively, almost foot-tapping piece in the up-tempo New-World register of the kind we associate with the likes of Gershwin or Bernstein.

The ‘Mediterranean Rhapsody’, on the other hand, though no less of an accomplished composition, was a more familiar salute to the European culture that had inspired it. It suggested, tentatively, that perhaps the history and peoples of the lands whose Mediterranean shores they shared reflected individual traditions which made it more problematic for their peoples to come to an understanding each with the other.

After a short interval Aaron Kurz turned to Haydn, a central figure in Europe’s musical tradition, and performed his Piano Sonata No. 58 in C Major. Kurz allowed us to get pleasurably lost in the slow, expressive fantasy of the first movement which was succeeded by the joyful rondo of the 2nd whose complicated and playful finger-work added a typically comic touch to the whole.

Beethoven’s last sonata, No. 32 in C minor op. 111, is a test of any great pianist’s approach and technique. Yet coming as it did at the conclusion to such a demanding programme in terms of the feats of sheer memory and stamina it had involved, it presented Kurz with no difficulty (and there are many) that he couldn’t masterfully overcome.

He performed the powerful first of the two movements with the requisite passion and resolve, and was movingly involved in the second which replaces the first with music no less revolutionary in its attempt to realize the farthest reaches of sublimity. The sometimes surprising rhythms, two of them, as the notes pointed out, anticipating both the swing and boogie-woogie styles of a later age, resolve ultimately into a silvery trill as the sonata reaches its vanishing point.

This was an outstanding recital.

When Kurz played Rachmaninov’s achingly beautiful Prelude in G major as his encore, I detected once again a gesture perhaps towards Horowitz in a work, and indeed a composer, so much associated with that maestro.

Aaron Kurz revealed an astonishing adaptability to the multiple moods of his programme, entering each composer’s world by sitting silent and still for several seconds before placing his hands on the keyboard of which, it must be said, he is complete master.


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