The Brazilian-born pianist, Arnaldo Cohen, won First Prize at the Busoni International Piano Competition in 1972. He has had a long career teaching at prestigious conservatories, such as the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, as well as a distinguished performing career. But he still plays with the strength and energy of a young man, and his recital last night was a very rewarding, as well as an invigorating experience. (Indeed, after getting up to bow following the demanding Bach/Busoni Chaconne, he was ready to sit down right away and continue with the even harder Handel Variations, but first had to rise again to acknowledge continued applause.)
Mr. Cohen’s playing of the Chaconne had an improvisatory quality, with more tempo fluctuation than one sometimes hears, but this was always organic and convincing. He produces a big, ringing, but always beautiful sound.
The Handel Variations began at a brisk tempo and, indeed, there was an athleticism to much of his playing. It was very satisfying to hear the power he brought to such highpoints as the last Variation before the Fugue. Yet, he always brought out contrasts, with the softer, sensitive parts played just as expressively. And, like a musician’s musician, there was always at least a subtle change in the expression of loud or soft variations when he played the repeats.
Mr. Cohen is a very fine Chopin player. One never thinks about his rubato, as it’s so natural. He plays with strength and virtuosity when needed, but always makes a convincing transition to the slow and gentle sections. Interestingly, he chose to play the Scherzi in an unusual order, ie. 1-4-3-2.
In the first Scherzo one noticed the power and ease with which he played, the beauty of the middle theme, and the Horowitzian interlocking octaves at the end. In the fourth Scherzo there were wonderful, splashing right hand figurations, and a hush of anticipation before the final return to the main theme. The third Scherzo had muscular octaves, whirlwind arpeggios, and a dizzying coda. The second Scherzo was also brilliantly played, at the end of which (pianists must have noticed this), Mr. Cohen did not take an extra split second before nailing the final cross hand jump.
Following an enthusiastic response, Mr. Cohen played one encore, a fast and puckish reading of Chopin’s Minute Waltz.