Pires brings her elevated keyboard artistry to UM Frost

By Lawrence Budmen

Maria João Pires performed music of Schubert, Debussy and Beethoven Saturday night at UM Gusman Concert Hall.

There are pianists whose overt display of technique, however impressive, calls attention to themselves. Then there are other artists who primarily serve the music, their mastery of the instrument merely a means to a higher purpose. 

Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires belongs to that latter group. On Saturday night, Pires played a remarkable recital at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall, jointly presented by Frost Music Live and the Frost Chopin Festival.

Pires’ U.S. appearances have been all too infrequent. Culminating a week of masterclasses and coaching students at the Frost School of Music, Pires’ music-making was vociferously cheered by an audience that included many students and Portuguese compatriots.

Opening with Schubert’s Sonata No. 13 in A Major, D. 664, Pires allowed the music to speak with directness, in a probing fashion but unembellished with interpretive eccentricities. Her touch was limpid and singing but Pires could summon power when called for. Every note emerged as part of a larger structural pattern with changes of mood and thematic line achieved organically. 

In the second movement Andante, Pires captured the somber underpinnings as well as spinning Schubert’s lyrical threads with exactitude. There was a lilting pulse and rhythmic dexterity in the final Allegro.

Pires banished the dust of routine in a revitalized reading of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque. The grandly sweeping opening flourishes of the Prélude evidenced a ceremonial aura but the exquisite delicacy of Pires’ soft playing captured the ear. She infused playfulness into Debussy’s miniatures, especially in the quirky phrases of the Menuet, tossed off with Gallic spirit. Clair de lune may be one of the most overplayed of piano miniatures, but Pires’ wide color palette, terraced dynamics and unhurried tempo allowed Debussy’s impressionistic miniature to resound with clarity. and rare beauty. Pires brought crispness and accuracy to the arpeggiated figurations of the Passepied, concluding a unique and memorable performance.

Pires’ titanic side came front and center in a terrific rendition of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C minor. By the time Beethoven conceived his final keyboard sonata (as well as the final string quartets, Ninth Symphony and Missa solemnis), he was almost totally deaf. This two-movement sonata is an extraordinary creation with a final Arietta of heart-breaking beqauty and gravitas.

The initial salvo of the sonata’s Maestoso introduction resounded in dramatic turns. There was tempestuous fury in the Allegro con brio that followed but every line was cleanly articulated and moments of calm were given special emphasis. 

The incredible majesty of the final Adagio molto semplice e cantabile was phrased with eloquence and simplicity. The variations on the movement’s principal melody were taken at a swaying gait without breaking the depth of feeling. In the concluding pages, Pires’ lightness and evenness of pulse held the listeners spellbound as she let the final note fade away, her head bent over almost on top of the keys.

The highly attentive audience gave Pires a cheering ovation, repeatedly calling her back to the stage. She finally obliged with an encore of more Beethoven. A noble and finely detailed traversal of the Adagio cantabile from the “Pathetique” Sonata provided a quiet conclusion to an evening of great pianism.

Maria João Pires plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major with the Palm Beach Symphony under Gerard Schwarz, 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.  palmbeachsymphony.org

The Frost Chopin Festival presents recitals by pianists Dmitry Ablogin, Kevin Kenner, Dang Thai Son and Shelly Berg June 25-July 2. frostchopinfestival.com


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Sun May 14, 2023
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