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Concert review

Segal brings individual touch to Brahms and Schumanns for Miami Piano Fest

Sun May 26, 2024 at 12:57 pm

By Lawrence Budmen

Alexandra Segal performed a recital Saturday night in Miami Beach for Miami International Piano Festival. Photo: Michael Pavia

While Brahms’ three sets of piano variations are concert staples, his three keyboard sonatas appear infrequently on recital programs. The Israeli-Ukrainian pianist Alexandra Segal assayed Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor. Op. 5 as the summit of her recital Saturday night for the Miami International Piano Festival at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach. In an  immensely challenging minefield for the artist, Segal scaled its technical demands with impressive assurance.

Brahms was only 20 years old when he created the score in 1853 but all the hallmarks of his mature style are already fully present – surging themes, melting lyricism, indigenous dance influences and fiery proclamations. 

In the very bright acoustic of the Wolfsonian lobby, Segal drew big-boned tone from the Steinway in the opening movement but she could spin a lyrical line with supple beauty. The second movement Andante finds Brahms at his most melodically inspired, and Segal brought a sense of flowing line and soft dynamics not easily achieved in that problematic space. A noble subject that comprises the movement’s coda was played with grandiose momentum and shape. 

The Scherzo is almost a demonic waltz of Lisztian power and proportions which Segal rendered with requisite panache and sweep. She engendered a sense of mystery at the outset of the Intermezzo. Crashing fortes and weighted iterations of the main subject suggested typical Brahmsian pathos beneath the music’s shining surface. Segal displayed firepower in the Allegro moderato ma rubato finale, her relentless and exact rhythm tempered by variations of touch and shading.

Segal’s program reflected the complex musical and personal relationship of Brahms and Clara and Robert Schumann. The concert’s first half was devoted to infrequently played scores by both Schumanns. In Clara’s Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, the opening offering, Segal took the principal theme at a deliberate pace which contrasted with her fleet fingering in the initial agitated variations. She drew a pearly tone for the quieter, more romantic sections and dispatched the runs in the concluding episode accurately.

The Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13 is the work of a twenty- something Robert Schumann. Already the musical and emotional mood swings that characterize his later works hold full sway. In this set of variations on a theme by Baron von Fricken, the final segment diverges and introduces a melody from Heinrich Marschner’s opera “Die Templer und die Jüdin.” 

Both sensitive and steely fingered, Segal captured the score’s large scale romantic palette with full sonority and subtle gradations of speed and pulse. In the march-like vignette, her articulation was crisp and decisive but she could lighten her attack and play with airy verve.  Segal opted for a rapid tempo in the finale but never lost precision or digital control., The climax resounded in appropriately majestic tones. Her entire rendition was played with  a touch of interpretive inspiration.

Following the ovation for her climactic performance of the Brahms sonata, Segal calmed the waters (and the audience) with a finely etched, spacious traversal of Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor as an encore.

The 2024-2025 season of the Miami International Piano Festival opens October 20 at the Aventura Art and Culture Center with Concerto Night featuring Vyacheslav Gryasnov (Mozart’s Concerto No. 12), Florian Noack (Mendelssohn’s Concerto No. 2) and Dmitry Ablogin (Hummel’s Concerto No. 2). Hobart Earle conducts. miamipianofest.com

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