Pianist Vonsattel masterful at Rockport Chamber Music Festival

Taking a scorched earth policy to the piano repertory, Gilles Vonsattel offered one of the most demanding, physically challenging and intensely rewarding performances witnessed at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. His recital Thursday evening at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, with pieces ranging from Beethoven to Liszt to Heinz Holliger, showcased a young musician at the peak of his performance abilities, with the artistic integrity to challenge both himself and his listeners.

There were no easy moments during this recital. Vonstattel leapt directly into Saint-Saens’ “Afrique,” a pastiche of exotic musical impressions that the worldly French composer gathered from his extensive travels. Fancifully stitched together around rigorous, heavily chordal textures, “Afrique” was only a hint at the musical escapades to come.

Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, its first two movements filled with lyric, almost mystical emotions, its finale another tumult of chords and power, followed. Vonsattel seemed almost a different artist, switching gears radically to capture the inner intensity of the delicate opening phrases, and carrying that poetic energy throughout.

Two Liszt works, each taken from longer compilations, provided yet a different musical intensity. “Les Jeux D’Eau,” showy cascades of impressionistic colors, offered one side of the prodigiously gifted artist; “Funerailles,” as the title suggests, a darker, more ceremonial one. Both works were played with musical insight that cast them in a new light. “Jeux D’Eau” sounded impressionistic, as it is famous for, but also impetuous; “Funerailles” captured its lugubrious mood, but elevated it to a kind of heroic status.

After intermission (much needed for performer and audience alike), Vonstattel played Holliger’s seven movement “Partita.” Holliger, the Swiss oboist/composer, and stalwart along with the likes of Boulez, Sacher and Veress in the 20th century European musical avant-garde, has created a work with entirely modern textures, but with constant references to period works by Liszt, Schumann and, of course, Bach, around whom the structure of “Partita” was intentioned.

The titles of some movements—Fugue, Barcarolle—were recognizable, but their execution hardly that. In its starkest terms, “Partita” allows certain pitches and chords to sustain—ringing out slowly until the sound decays—and as such allows the sustained notes, and their overtones, to become part of the sound world.

Vonsattel played with every possible technique—at the keyboard, standing and strumming the strings, plucking both the strings and the keys themselves, and pounding percussively on the inside of the instrument. It was a tour-de-force of concentration and ability—and not a single second of this long (at least 35 minutes) work seemed out of place.

As a finale, Vonsattel brought out an even more difficult work, Frederic Rzewski’s “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.” Based on an old blues, a recording of which he played before the work, “Winnsboro” creates a thunderous ostinato in the left hand, repeating for what seems like forever, while the right forearm pounds down on the keyboard. Rzewski meant to mimic the deafening noise of working in a cotton mill, and he succeeded. A brief section where Vonsattel actually played the blues tune gave everyone a chance to relax, before the thunder began again.

This recital, demanding as it was to hear and obviously to perform, was a true act of artistic bravery. It was a pleasure to bear witness to it.

Keith Powers, Essex Wicked Local
Back to List
Back to Top