Libetta stuns Miami Piano Festival with a towering, timely performance of Prokofiev’s “Stalingrad” war sonata

By Lawrence Budmen

Frances Libetta played Prokofiev, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Beethoven on Sunday at Miami Piano Festival.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major is having a moment, turning up in part or in whole over the past year in concerts locally and across classical music. Composed in 1942, it is the second and best known of the composer’s three “war sonatas.” Often referred to as the “Stalingrad” sonata, the work arrived with the Soviet Union under military siege by Nazi Germany.

The reversal of roles today, with Russia waging an unprovoked war against Ukraine, accounts for the work’s current popularity and gives its revival a grim historic twist that is not lost on Russians themselves.

It was the centerpiece of a recital by Francesco Libetta on Sunday afternoon at the Miami International Piano Festival, held at the Aventura Art and Culture Center. As in previous local appearances, the Italian pianist — also a lecturer for the Miami Piano Festival Academy at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale — showed he was up for the most difficult works and passages in the entire keyboard repertoire. He had the minefield of technical challenges In Prokofiev’s opus well in hand.

What really distinguished this reading was Libetta’s ability to recreate the terror behind the notes. From the angular opening of the initial Allegro inquieto to the brusque, abrupt final chords twenty minutes later, Libetta freshly distilled the sense of shock and brutality in the score that must have been felt by the first audiences hearing Soviet-era pianist Sviatoslav Richter (a Ukranian by birth) premiere the work in 1943.

Libetta tackled the first movement’s knuckle-busting octaves with total security. He brought sensitivity and polish to the main motif and variations of the moody, second-movement Andante caloroso — a that could have come from one of Prokofiev’s ballet scores, rendered by Libetta with organic coherence rather than episodic disjointedness.

His breakneck speed in the concluding Precipitado surpassed the relentless pace of the earlier sections but every note was precise and perfectly placed. The ending left the nearly full house stunned. With the first anniversary of Russia’s assault on Ukraine just passed, Libetta delivered a monumental performance and, in no small measure, a message as he powerfully conveyed the score’s text and subtext.

He opened Sunday’s program with four of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. It took the first two for the pianist to warm up, with some blurry passages along the way. Once his fingers were flying, the scampering lines of Song No. 4 emerged fleet and airy and the thrice familiar “Spring Song” was lyrical, elegantly stated and freshly minted.

In a segment devoted to Chopin, Libetta began with the imaginative — and rarely played — Bolero, in which the rhythms of a Spanish dance are transformed into a typical Chopin vignette. Libetta’s feeling for the Polish master’s brand of romanticism was aptly displayed in the shifting spheres of the Ballade No. 3 — while his touch is light and his tone glowing, Libetta can salso ummon reserves of power that resonate through a hall. In the Scherzo No. 3, the opening march-like strains were dispatched with pianistic fury, but the chorale melody was broad and eloquent.

After the Prokofiev, Libetta concluded his recital with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30, one of the composer’s late, strikingly original masterpieces. Emphasizing heightened contrasts of light and darkness, the sonata’s calm opening built to a heaven-storming exclamation. A widely varied dynamic palette, from a mere whisper to full-throttle sonority, enhanced the movement’s coloration and momentum.

The Prestissimo became a demonic scherzo under Libetta’s hands. The principal theme of the final Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo was given eloquent spaciousness without heaviness. In contrast to the percussiveness of the Prokofiev, Libetta drew an aristocratic, singing sound from the piano here. Fugal sections were cleanly articulated and fast variations were deftly conveyed. The return to the main subject took on a long, spun, otherworldly character of incredible beauty.

Repeatedly called back to the stage, Libetta offered more Chopin for encores – a feathery and lithe Minute Waltz and a restrained, dreamy version of the Nocturne in E-flat.

The festival continues with Aristo Sham playing Bach, Beethoven, Villa-Lobos, Piazzolla and Barber, 7:30 p.m. March 4 at The Wolfsonian, 1001 Washington Avenue in Miami Beach.

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Mon Feb 27, 2023
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