Pianist Pratt falls in muddy, uneven Coral Gables recital

By David Fleshler

Pianist Awadagin Pratt performed Thursday night for the Community Arts Series at Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ.

Pianist Awadagin Pratt performed Thursday night for the Community Arts Series at Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ. Photo: Rob Davidson

Awadagin Pratt is a wildly uneven performer.

Imagine an icy, technically flawless pianist of the sort conservatories are sometimes accused of churning out and you will have imagined everything he is not.

The American pianist, who performed Thursday night at Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ, can produce passages of interpretive insight and ringing magnificence. He often played in a bold and emotional style that created suspense even in the most familiar warhorses.

Yet just as often, his crashing, headlong style yielded mushy jumbles of notes, where, if you didn’t already know the piece, you’d have a hard time figuring out what was going on.

Consider his performance of the Bach Chaconne, a work for solo violin arranged for piano by the Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni. As played by violinists, the opening is a resonant, dramatic procession of chords. But Pratt opened in a cool, quiet manner, with a rhythmic pulse that recalled the chaconne’s origin as a dance, a somber and formal one as Bach composed it, but still a dance.

Maintaining this rhythmic drive, he built up a long crescendo as the music became more complex, bringing it to a roaring climax as Pratt played all the notes Busoni inserted to fill in Bach’s implied harmonies.

Yet at other moments, such as the major-key climax of the work’s middle section, the sense of the music was just lost in a blur. And the passage leading up to the chords at the end—a brisk series of triplets that gains increasing intensity—were buried by the heaviness of his left-hand playing at the bass end.

Pratt, chairman of the piano department at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, opened with Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. He gave a performance of breadth, proportion and grandeur, yet again with so much blurry, over-pedaled playing—particularly in his right hand—that much of the work’s impact was lost.

The quick runs and ornaments that shoot through the first variations lacked articulation, losing out to the heavy sounds of the bass and costing the variations much of their appeal. But he played quieter variations with an unhurried, but never plodding, poetry and sense of mood. In his hands, the final variation before the concluding fugue, in which the music lurches from major to minor, was full of deep, thundering power.

Pratt ended the recital with Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor. He did justice to Liszt’s sinewy lines of melody, sometimes sweet, other times sinister. The great symphonic theme that appears in the opening came off with emotional commitment and grandeur.

When the music became complex, however, the pounding chords sometimes produced passages of great force, other times just confusion. There were no encores.

Posted in Performances

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Fri Jul 17, 2015
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