Hungarian pianist Szokolay stronger on bravura than poetry

By David Fleshler

 Balazs Szokolay, a professor at Budapest’s famous Franz Liszt Academy of Music, performs best at high speed.

 As the works on the Hungarian pianist’s program Saturday at the Lincoln Theater grew more technically demanding, his playing more than rose to the occasion, with keyboard fireworks taken at almost reckless velocity, wowing the crowd into standing ovations. In collections of miniatures by Mendelssohn and Schumann, however, which needed a more varied tonal palette, his touch was often too hard and monochorme. Szokaly performed at the Miami International Piano Festival’s Discovery series, which wraps up Sunday night.

This year marks the bicentennial of Mendelssohn’s birth in 1809, and performers have responded by programming a great deal of his music. Szokolay devoted the entire first half to Mendelssohn, showing several sides of the composer’s musical personality: the familiar lyricist, the brilliant pianist and the classicist who deeply admired Bach.

 He opened with ten of the Songs Without Words, staples of the student repertoire that make occasional appearances on recital programs. In these short works, his playing too often lacked the singing tone and light touch called for, both in the lyric sections and in the rapid-fire parts that recall the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But his performance of the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor was a model of dramatic power and musical logic, drawing out the different voices in a performance that was exciting yet under control at every moment. The fiery Rondo Capriccioso was a whirlwind of notes that made an effective close to the first half.

 He opened after intermission with Schumann’s Papillons, a set of short movements of rapidly changing moods, where the same problem surfaced that had hampered his performance of the Songs Without Words – a hard touch that lacked the quality of grace and fantasy needed to make this work come alive.

 A Polish pianist is expected to play some Chopin, and a Hungarian one must play some Liszt. Szokolay complied with Harmonies du Soir, the Legend No. 2 and Venezia e Napoli. He displayed the requisite big technique – thundering octaves and fistfuls of chords taken at hair-raising speed. But as impressive as the blur his hands made on the keyboard were the passages where he drew from the piano tones of orchestral grandeur, particularly in the Harmonies du Soir.

 The enthusiastic crowd in the half-filled theater rose at the last blast of thunder from the piano, and Szokolay generously responded with three encores, including an entire two-movement Haydn Sonata in G Major.

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Sun May 17, 2009
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