A superb artist, Kuerti brings a varied set of tools to Beethoven recital

By David Fleshler

Anton Kuerti performed an all-Beethoven program Tuesday night at Gusman Concert Hall to open the season for Friends of Chamber Music.

Superb musician, fine lecturer and skilled piano repairman, Anton Kuerti displayed an unusual range of talents Tuesday at his all-Beethoven recital at the University of Miami.

After a gripping performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23, the Appassionata, at the university’s Gusman Hall, the Canadian pianist quieted the applause and launched into an informative lecture on the work that would take up the second half, Beethoven’s massive late work, the Diabelli Variations.

Then, during intermission, he walked on stage with a black bag of tools, unscrewed the front of the Steinway grand, pulled out the keyboard and tinkered for several minutes with the hammers. Asked what he was doing, he explained that the hammer springs had been so taut during the first half that they would sometimes hit the strings twice.

Kuerti, who opened this season’s Friends of Chamber Music of Miami series, is not a flashy performer, hunching over the piano and keeping his hands close to the keyboard. But at the age of 72, he still displays a mastery of the instrument. His virtuosity consists of iron control over the keyboard, with an evenness of sound, technical control in the fastest passages and a range of colors unusual even among concert pianists.

His performance of the Appassionata‘s first movement was a model of controlled power, neither too stilted and classical nor too headstrong and romantic. The movement unfolded with a grim drive, with Kuerti’s assured playing maintaining control in even the most tempestuous passages. In the opening theme of the second movement, he drew velvety, organ-like tones from the piano’s lower register, and when the music ascended to the upper keys in forte passages, his playing was sonorous and never shrill.

His performance of the Sonata No. 26, known as Les Adieux, which opened the program, was a bit less impressive, with more dropped notes and the impression that he was still warming up. During intermission, as he retuned the piano, he said he had been particularly bothered during that piece by the hammer problem. But there were still moments of great Beethovenian grandeur, particularly in the sweeping arpeggios of the last movement.

During his lecture on the Diabelli Variations, Kuerti explained how Beethoven took primitive elements of the waltz by the Vienna music publisher Anton Diabelli and used them as the basis for 33 variations. “In my opinion, this is Beethoven’s greatest keyboard work,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s also his longest.”

Partly due to the work’s sheer variety and partly due to the performer, it didn’t seem overextended at all. The minor-key ninth variation, built around the turn that opens the waltz, was a study in concentrated force. The variation that followed, a rapid Presto, came off with a harp-like lightness, but with the melody coming through clearly.

When Beethoven handed the melody to the bass, as in variations 16 and 25, Kuerti brought it off with a sonority that was resonant but never pounding. In the deeply emotional 31st variation, he drew maximum expression from the elaborate figures that ornament the melody without ever getting caught in the details, bringing the work to a tragic climax in trills.

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Wed Dec 1, 2010
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