Brahms in a New Light, Resembling the Weightier Liszt
You might have expected that this year’s International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College the New School for Music would be virtually a symposium on the work of Franz Liszt. The 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth is being commemorated this year, after all, and he is the patron saint of the grand Romantic approach to keyboard virtuosity that this festival, now in its 13th season, has always celebrated.
He is by no means ignored: the two-week institute includes two sessions (a lecture and an interview) with the Liszt specialist and biographer Alan Walker; a lecture-recital by David Dubal; and Liszt-heavy programs by Gesa Luecker, Cyprien Katsaris, Mykola Suk and HaeSun Paik. But most of the nearly two dozen concerts include only a work or two by Liszt, and a few are Liszt-free.
One of those, surprisingly, was the opening recital by Jerome Rose, the festival’s founder and director and a Liszt interpreter of considerable repute. His program was all Brahms — the Rhapsodies (Op. 79), the Sonata No. 3 and the Fantasy Pieces (Op. 116). It was not until his only encore that Mr. Rose turned his attention to Liszt, by way of a graceful, sweetly lyrical account of “Consolation No. 3” that was all the more welcome for showing Liszt’s poetic side rather than his penchant for thundering octaves.
That said, Brahms was an interesting choice in this Liszt year because the composers, though contemporaries, were on opposite sides of a stylistic divide, with Brahms often painted as a traditionalist who held out against the innovations of Liszt, Wagner and the New German School.
Heard a century and a half later, and in light of the musical sea changes that have occurred since, the differences between them seem to have shrunk. Mr. Rose, in his muscular, often explosive readings, seemed intent on reconciling them by playing Brahms with a weight and volume more typically lavished on Liszt’s showpieces. Not that the works Mr. Rose chose resisted that approach. Brahms marked the rhapsodies “agitato” and “molto passionato,” and Mr. Rose took him at his word, giving each a big, viscerally powerful account that could sometimes seem overly incendiary for Brahms, yet never so much that the poetic side of his spirit was overwhelmed.
Mr. Rose’s conception of the Third Sonata was also forceful and urgent, but here he allowed greater nuance. The Andante espressivo second movement, for example, had a lovely, singing quality, though the sense of drive that propelled the fast movements was always just beneath the (comparatively) calm surface.
Mr. Rose was at his most varied and flexible in the Fantasy Pieces, in which his assertive renderings of the outgoing capriccios were offset by graceful, richly detailed playing in the more subtle intermezzos.