by Neil McCalmont
On the evening of Saturday, July 16 at Gilmour Academy, the “Sonata Duo” portion of ENCORE Chamber Music’s inaugural season opened with a titanic concert by Brazilian pianist Arnaldo Cohen, consisting of works by Bach, Brahms, and Chopin. Lauded by one critic as “the greatest pianist you’ve never heard of,” Cohen has led a successful international career, but has yet to become a household name in the States. Given the night’s thrilling performance, this should soon change.
J.S. Bach’s “Chaconne in d” had originally been composed for solo violin as part of the composer’s second Partita, but pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni arranged the piece for piano with some appropriate flourish. The “Chaconne” has been a longstanding favorite of the repertoire, and has been arranged for nearly every set of instruments you can think of.
The chaconne — a type of Baroque dance — opens captivatingly, its repeating bass line played by Cohen with steady conviction. Even in this somewhat simple beginning, the pianist brought out its many dynamic subtleties, which made the start of the performance both compelling and moving. Cohen’s playing ebbed and flowed beautifully with the piece, capturing whatever essence it demanded of him. Only for a minute or two in the middle did he rush, seemingly due to his enthusiasm. Busoni’s arrangement draws on techniques of previous masters of the piano, which Cohen’s highlighted in his learnéd playing, bringing out the voices of certain composers such as Beethoven and Chopin.
For the next work, Johannes Brahms treated a theme by Handel to 25 variations and a final fugue in his Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Cohen’s interpretation was masterful. His tempo was quick but never rushed, and his clear playing brought out the inner texture of the variations. He pristinely calculated the details down to each trill, and his ability to define the character of each variation while still creating an arc to the entire piece was enchanting. Particular highlights among the variations were the jubilance of the eighth, the nostalgia of the nineteenth, the ecstasy of the last, and the euphoria of the fugue, in whose technical and spiritual demands the pianist peaked.
For his finale, Cohen played all four of pianist and composer Frédéric Chopin’s Scherzos. Dubbed “poet of the piano,” Chopin took the idea of Beethoven’s scherzos and developed it into a new, highly personal genre for the piano. Performing all four in a row requires the highest level of virtuosity and is analogous to running a marathon.
Cohen’s interpretation fit the pieces perfectly — intimate and Romantic, but never showy or with too much pedal, a trap many pianists fall into. The first was well-paced and highlighted the lively return of the first theme, while the finale of the second was jaw-dropping. The pianist’s keyboard-spanning runs throughout each piece, especially the second and third, seemed like rainbows in sound. The last scherzo defined sublimity in piano playing.
For an encore, Cohen said softly, “since the concert is long enough, I will play the ‘Minute’ Waltz.’” Chopin’s brisk waltz was an elegant and satisfying end to a most riveting night.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com July 18, 2016.
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