Spanish pianist reveals a master’s artistry at Miami Piano Festival

By David Fleshler

Claudio Martinez Mehner will perform Saturday night at the Miami International Piano Festival.

Claudio Martinez Mehner showed his insight and bravura Saturday night at the Miami International Piano Festival.

Surprises can emerge from the unknown soloists who often take the stage at the Miami International Piano Festival. On Friday the audience at Miami Beach’s Lincoln Theatre heard a fine performance by a talented student. On Saturday, they heard a master.

The Spanish pianist Claudio Martinez Mehner stopped performing for seven years after a hand injury—a problem he believes was psychosomatic, the result of being forced on the concert stage at too young an age. Now on the faculty of Madrid’s Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia, he performs a few recitals annually but is not particularly eager for a conventional pianist’s career.

His bravura, authoritative and highly personal performance Saturday made clear he has the ability to make it on the concert stage, however much he may disdain it. His playing drew repeated bravos, culminating in a long final standing ovation from a hard-to-impress audience of piano aficionados.

Martinez Mehner has immense control over the keyboard. To an unusual degree, even among concert pianists, he can draw a vast range of sounds from the instrument – ghostly and without a trace of percussiveness in a set of Preludes by Debussy, warm and romantic in Schumann’s Third Sonata, stark and bleak in Janáček’s Sonata.

He has clearly given a lot of thought to these works. Every chord and passage seemed to be part of a larger whole, yet the playing never felt studied. And Martinez Mehner had the technical command to express his thoughts at the keyboard in a way that always sounded spontaneous.

He opened with Beethoven’s late Piano Sonata No. 30, Op. 109. His playing of the opening was more restless than lyrical, giving the quick opening a strain of nervous energy. The concluding theme and variations movement was a stunning slow crescendo to a climax that sounded like a chorus of church bells, as he drew a huge tone from the piano.

Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 3, once known as the Concerto without Orchestra, is surprisingly rare on recital programs, despite containing as much lyricism, invention and warmth as the composer’s more popular piano works. From the first movement’s quiet opening, Martinez Mehner built an immense structure of almost symphonic grandeur, but he played with a light and elegant touch the playful, pianistic figurations that are characteristic of Schumann’s piano compositions.

Martinez Mehner has the hyper-articulated touch of many of the great pianists, and he displayed this in the concluding Prestissimo movement, as he blazed through the music in way that never lost clarity, despite the hair-raising speed at which he took it. He hit a few wrong notes, but these seemed the product of a performer focused on the music and on playing with emotional and intellectual openness, rather than with the care of a diamond-cutter trying to make everything perfect.

He played two encores, a singing but not too sugary performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor and a harpsichord-light, dance-like whirl through the Corrente from Bach’s Partita No. 6.

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Sun May 16, 2010
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