Walter Ponce brings refinement and subtlety to Schubert and Liszt

By Alan Becker

Walter Ponce performed works of Schubert and Liszt Friday night at the Miami International Piano Festival.

Although Bolivian-born pianist Walter Ponce has performed with the Chicago Symphony, at London’s Wigmore Hall, and at many venues in New York City and abroad, his name is not well known to South Floridians.

The Miami International Piano Festival presented Ponce with a forum in which to display his art Friday evening at the Colony Theater on Miami Beach. This is a more intimate venue than their former Lincoln Theatre location, now closed and scheduled for future commercial use. The change is a beneficial one, since the Colony places the audience in close perspective to the piano, and is more easily filled than the Lincoln.

The program, centered around two major piano blockbusters, began with Liszt’s Hymne de L’Enfant a son Reveil, one of ten religiously inspired pieces from his Harmonies poetiques et religieuses. The Hymn is an arrangement of a piece he originally wrote for female voices with piano and harp to a text by Lamartine. It is in the composer’s best Liebestraume-like melodic style, and was performed with refinement and achingly beautiful attention to the melodic line.

This refinement was apparent also in the great Sonata in B minor, the Everest of Liszt’s piano achievements. While Ponce is certainly not lacking in technical ability, display and empty rhetoric is not a major part of his pianistic make up. The radical single-movement structure was held together perfectly in the pianist’s subtle control of all dynamic ranges, along with his remarkable command of rubato. In these days when so many pianists tackle the Sonata, it is refreshing to find the maturity Ponce brings to this creation, along with all the finger dexterity one could wish for. The composer’s bicentennial year celebration was extremely well served.

One of the problems with Schubert’s Sonatas is the inordinate length of several of them, especially if the repeats are observed. Ponce chose the path of completeness for the epic Sonata in B flat, D.960, which can make for a heavy slog in the hands of a lesser pianist. The Molto Moderato opening movement had a cumulative power and expression in Ponce’s moving, deeply concentrated performance. The Andante sostenuto took on additional tragic elements, not only from its remote C-sharp minor key, but from the intensity, weight, and stress Ponce brought to it. With Schubert’s health deteriorating, he well knew that his life would be ending shortly.

The ensuing Scherzo and final Allegro, ma non troppo provided just the relief necessary from the tragedy of the two earlier movements. Ponce’s breathless tempos sacrificed some loss of inner detail, but also made one sit up in amazement at his ability to keep up with the breakneck articulation. In a tradition followed by many pianists, the last two movements were not separated by a pause.

As a lighter prelude to Schubert’s intense and mostly tragic sonata, his lighter-than-air Scherzo in B-flat D. 593 was well chosen. It is a charming little piece, and a good foil to the massive Sonata.

Despite much vociferous applause and shouts of bravo, there were thankfully no encores to break up the mood following some of Schubert’s most profound music.

The Miami International Piano Festival continues 8 p.m. Saturday at the Colony Theatre with Amir Katz in a program devoted to Chopin’s Nocturnes. miamipianofest.com; 305-674-1040, 800-745-3000

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Sat May 21, 2011
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