A Time to Play and a Time to Talk
Jeffrey Swann is sometimes billed on his recital programs as both pianist and lecturer, but even when he is billed as merely a pianist, as he was on Thursday evening, he does a good deal of talking between pieces. Lecturing is something performers need to think about seriously before embracing: too much chattiness can try an audience’s patience if the musician doesn’t have the talent for it or hasn’t prepared.
Mr. Swann doesn’t have that problem, partly because he assembles his programs imaginatively, often with an extramusical theme that connects seemingly disparate works, but also because his comments, however lengthy, are packed with both obscure and commonplace information and are clearly prepared carefully, even though they give the impression of being off the cuff.
Mr. Swann’s program on Thursday, an installment of the International Keyboard Institute & Festival at Mannes College the New School for Music, was called “Music of Ghost Stories, the Fantastic, the Bizarre” and looked at the ways composers grappled with the otherworldly, mostly of the demonic variety that captured the imaginations of 19th-century authors and composers.
He began with a perfect example: Schubert’s “Erlkönig,” performed here in Liszt’s solo piano arrangement. In Schubert’s vocal version, the macabre text and the darkly rippling piano line share the work of evoking horror, but Liszt’s transcription creates the terrifying atmosphere on its own, even without the tale of death pursuing a sick child as his father tries to carry him to safety. Mr. Swann’s forceful, sharply accented reading brought its own electricity to the score.
Two less frequently heard Liszt works — the thunderous “Unstern!” and the light-textured “Mephisto Polka” — were of only modest interest but were reminders of Mr. Swann’s technical versatility. That quality had an ample workout in Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” an eight-movement portrait of a musical eccentric by a composer who could certainly empathize. Mr. Swann avoided overstating the contrasts between extroverted, speed-demon passages and quieter, ruminative ones, letting Schumann’s writing take its own weird twists. But in the final movement — Schumann’s evocation of a descent into madness — Mr. Swann wisely abandoned restraint.
After the intermission, he played another rarity, Smetana’s “Macbeth and the Witches,” a study in contrasts: the witches cavort wildly, painted in almost Impressionist harmonies, with interruptions for occasional glimpses of Macbeth, a distant, saturnine silhouette. Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” closed the program, its three panels — the chromatic shimmering of Ondine, the water sprite; the eerie swinging of the hanged corpse in “Le Gibet”; and the zesty, hard-driven depiction of the goblin Scarbo — each illuminated by the clarity and virtuosity of Mr. Swann’s nuanced interpretive style.