New York Times - Friday, July 24, 2009 - Written by Anthony Tommasini

Two Pianists: A Virtuoso and a Philosophizer

It can be deeply affecting to encounter the artistry of gifted young musicians who exude artistic seriousness. Yet during a program of formidable piano works by Liszt and Ravel on Wednesday night at Mannes College the New School for Music, the 21-year-old Russian virtuoso Vitaly Pisarenko was so serious in his manner and musical approach that he seemed unhappy.

His program, sponsored by the college’s International Keyboard Institute and Festival, a two-week offering of concerts, lectures and master classes, was part of its Prestige Series, presenting emerging pianists in daily recitals at 6 p.m. Mr. Pisarenko played with prodigious technique, myriad shadings and scrupulous accuracy. His account of Ravel’s “Miroirs” had wondrous delicacy and moments of tender sensitivity.

But when accepting applause, Mr. Pisarenko, a slight and shy-looking young man, appeared to be miserable. A certain reticence, even stiffness, in his otherwise impressive performances suggested that playing the piano is a somber discipline for him.

The contrast could not have been greater when, later that evening, in the festival’s Masters Series, the American pianist Jeffrey Swann, well known to New York audiences, presented a program called “The Philosophical Piano,” playing the “Emerson” movement from Ives’s “Concord” Sonata, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C minor. Mr. Swann, 57, may not have technique to burn like Mr. Pisarenko. But he is an accomplished and resourceful pianist who obviously loves playing his instrument, sharing music with audiences and talking about the pieces he has chosen, something he does with avuncular charm and insight.

I was eager to hear Mr. Pisarenko, who took first prize last year in the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition in Utrecht, the Netherlands. His account of Liszt’s Polonaise No. 2 emerged with punchy rhythmic vitality and, when this evocation of a Polish dance turns unexpectedly frenzied, with demonic fervor. And it was refreshing to hear Mr. Pisarenko’s serious-minded performance of Liszt’s exuberant Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. In his hands the spiraling passagework, thick with pungent cluster chords, anticipated the harmonies of a much-later Hungarian master, Gyorgy Ligeti.

Still, it was hard not to worry a little about this immensely gifted pianist. His program bio stated, almost as a point of pride, that starting the morning after his victory in the Liszt Competition, Mr. Pisarenko began an extensive international touring schedule. The pace seems not to have let up. Does he have opportunities to work with mentors, to mature, to participate in a summer chamber music festival or even to take time off?

What a difference from Mr. Swann’s recital. When the affable Mr. Swann appeared onstage, he could hardly wait, it seemed, to tell us about the philosophical resonances of the pieces he had selected. The fitful, searching “Emerson” movement from the “Concord” Sonata is Ives’s musical description of a philosophical state of mind, Mr. Swann said, whereas Liszt’s B minor Sonata, inspired by Goethe’s “Faust,” is a metaphorical depiction of a great philosophical work. But Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32, his last, Mr. Swann suggested, is “itself philosophical.”

Mr. Swann’s account of the daunting Liszt sonata lacked some virtuosic dazzle and sonic power. He somewhat mangled a few passages of octave outbursts and leaping chords. And his fingers got a little tangled in the fugal episode in the first movement of the Beethoven sonata.

Still, he played all three works with musical authority and pianistic flair. During each performance I kept thinking about how astonishing these pieces are. If a pianist can convey this, he is a master in the ways that matter most.

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