Anton Nel shows classic artistry at Miami Music Festival

By Lawrence Budmen

Pianist Anton Nel performed a recital Saturday night at the Miami Music Festival in Miami Shores.

Pianist Anton Nel performed a recital Saturday night at the Miami Music Festival in Miami Shores.

A stormy night did not deter a large audience from turning out for a recital by Anton Nel Saturday at Barry University in Miami Shores, presented by the Miami Music Festival. The South African pianist has given master classes this week for the 25 students at the festival’s keyboard studio. The university’s recently renovated Cor Jesu Chapel proved an inviting concert venue. A warm but not over-reverberant acoustic enhanced the mellow-toned Steinway’s sound in the high-ceilinged space.

A well-traveled international soloist and professor at the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music, Nel is an old school pianist of the Serkin-Gieseking-Schnabel variety. While he has virtuosic technique to burn, Nel gives first priority to capturing the composer’s stylistic and structural content while exploring the musical depths beneath surface glitter.

Compared to his pathbreaking symphonies and string quartets, Haydn’s piano sonatas are considered lightweight scores but they did not sound that way in Nel’s hands. He brought just the right light touch to the Sonata in A-flat Major, registering the quirky turns in the initial Allegro moderato with irony and wit. Displaying strong dexterity, Nel brought out niceties of detail and dynamics.

The melodic lines of the sonata’s Adagio almost match Mozart in eloquence and Nel’s fluent phrasing brought out the music’s beauty. The final Presto had plenty of verve and sparkle, and Nel maintained his fleet pace to the final bars in a performance that was a model of Classical style.

The three pieces from Book II of Debussy’s Preludes were a study in contrasts.”Général Lavine-eccentric” is a portrait of a music hall performer set in off-kilter cakewalk rhythms. Nel’s buoyant performance was finely varied in coloration. “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune” (The Terrace of Moonlit Audiences) finds Debussy in full impressionistic mode. Nel’s exquisite soft playing evoked the score’s mystery, and he brought clarity and lean calibration to the ambiguous harmonics. There is more than a touch of Lisztian pianistic display in “Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks). The ripples of thematic motifs were tossed off at a rapid clip with voluminous tone. Nel’s buildup of sonority in the final section found resolution in a quiet, surprisingly poetic coda.

Enrique Granados’ Allegro de Concierto was the winning score in a competition at the Madrid Conservatory in 1903. (Manuel De Falla won second prize.) Unlike Goyescas and the composer’s later work, this is an unabashed showpiece with touches of Andalusian languor along the way. The score was a favorite of the late Alicia de Larrocha and Nel’s performance was no less idiomatic. He drew gleaming sound while giving full measure to the rhapsodic melodies.

There were continual flashes of lightning through the chapel’s windows during Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major but that could not disturb the momentum and continuity of Nel’s Classically scaled performance. Unlike Jeremy Denk’s wildly inventive, almost improvisatory performance this past season at the Arsht Center, Nel traced the opening movement’s songlike lines in an unhurried, clear trajectory. His dynamics were more restrained than in the overt display of the program’s first half.

Limpid, beautiful tone captured the moments of light amid the bleak atmosphere of the Andante sostenuto, one of Schubert’s most sublime creations. Nel’s refreshingly vital approach to the third movement emphasized a steady rhythmic flow, more scherzo than Viennese dance. The final Allegro ma non troppo was fast indeed. Nel effectively contrasted the stormy sections with touches of dance-like pulse and charm.

Cheers and standing ovations brought a rollicking encore of Chabrier’s “Scherzo-Valse” from Pièces pittoresques. Nel’s agile playing did full justice to the work’s playful lilt.

The Miami Music Festival continues 7 p.m. June 24 with a recital by pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine featuring works by Rachmaninoff and Beethoven at Barry University, Cor Jesu Chapel in Miami Shores.



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Sun Jun 19, 2016
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