Sham shows versatile artistry at Miami Piano Festival

By Lawrence Budmen

Aristo Sham performed Sunday in Aventura for the Miami International Piano Festival.

German keyboard tradition and impressionism were the focus of the recital on Sunday by Aristo Sham for the Miami International Piano Festival at the Aventura Art and Culture Center. 

The pianist is a graduate of the New England Conservatory and is currently studying at Juilliard with Robert McDonald and Orli Shaham. Throughout a demanding program, Sham evidenced rock-solid technique and a fine musicality with a personal interpretive bent.

Handel’s Suite in E Major was originally written for the harpsichord but works surprisingly well on the modern piano. Sham found lyricism amid the Baroque grandeur of the Prelude. The Allemande flowed with dance-like playfulness, benefiting from Sham’s sensitivity of touch. A brisk Courante preceded the final Air and Variations, known as “The Harmonious Blacksmith.” Sham took a steady, deliberate approach to the famous theme. The first variation was assayed at a rapid pace and the following sections emerged coherent and all of a piece.

Schumann’s Drei Fantasiestücke, Op. 11, are from the composer’s late period, evincing his artistic daring and, perhaps, his increasing schizophrenia. Sham captured the grandly romantic virtuosity of the initial Molto vivace with just the right undercurrent of nostalgia. He brought out the Schubertian ethos of the second piece and his straightforward iteration avoided ponderousness in the third piece.

Sham’s buoyant and impetuous take on Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21 in C Major (“Waldstein”) displayed a young pianist’s Beethoven. It took a movement for the performance to settle in. The rumbling opening lines of the first movement Allegro con brio were taken at a fast clip yet still marked by clarity and accuracy. There was sweep in the contrasting second subject and developmental thunder. Still, the playing seemed too studied, and wanting in spontaneity. 

Sham suggested an aura of mystery in the first chords of the Adagio molto, maintaining the solemn stasis right through the transition to the concluding Rondo. Played with lithe sparkle, the main melody emerged in exhilarating fashion. Sham breezed through the hand-crossings and runs across the keyboard. The Prestissimo coda was marked by speed and clarity, at times suggesting the elegance of Chopin.

For the program’s second half, Sham turned to impressionism and its influence on composers beyond France. Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Suite Floral reflects the Brazilian composer’s Parisian sojourn in the 1920’s as well as his indigenous artistic influences. Sham found the right balance of languid atmosphere and Rachmaninoffian pyrotechnics for “A Singing Country Girl.” Fireworks and unabashed flash emblazoned “Joy in the Garden.”

Jasmine Flower Fantasia by Chinese-Australian composer Chu Wanghua utilizes one of the traditional Chinese melodies that Puccini adapted in Turandot. The rippling figurations and subtle thematic variants of this vignette were well suited to Sham’s wide tonal palette.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit has long been a challenge to pianists but Sham proved fully up to the task of these three portraits. “Ondine” was infused with an array of colors and flowed organically, the water sprite pictured in svelte tones. Sham quietly drew out the desolation of “Le gebet,” the endless desert sketched in spare vibrations.

“Scarbo” is one of the most difficult pieces ever created for the piano. Sham took the darting opening figures at top speed, painting the mischievous nighttime creature with flashes of light and wit. He displayed an idiomatic affinity for Ravel’s impulsive whirl of notes, buttressed by impeccable command of the score. Sham vividly conveyed the vivacious charm beneath the minefields of this tour de force.

As an encore, Sham offered Brahms’ Intermezzo in E-flat Major, Op. 117, no. 1. After the boundless energy of Ravel, the simple melodic inspiration of Brahms took wing with elegant phrasing and lovely tonal hues.

The Miami International Piano Festival presents Cristian Budu 7: 30 p.m. March 9 at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach.

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Mon Feb 26, 2024
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