Classical Music Guide - Wednesday, July 16, 2014 - Written by Donald Isler

Alexander Schimpf

Bach: Toccata in E Minor, BWV 914
Sieber: Augenblicke – eine Sammlung (2008) – US Premiere
Debussy: L’isle Joyeuse
Beethoven: Sonata in B-Flat major, Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”)

Although yesterday was only the fourth day of this year’s International Keyboard Institute and Festival, the recital by the young German pianist, Alexander Schimpf, was already the sixth recital of the always interesting annual concert series. Filling up the second half of July with more than enough programs to keep piano aficionados in New York City happy (as well as master classes and lectures) the Festival includes programs by pianists at all different stages of their careers, usually at least one or two major “headliners,” such as Marc-Andre Hamelin, and many, many artists of quality worth hearing.

Lang Lang may be a sensation all around the world, but I would not miss the annual recitals at the Festival of another Chinese pianist, Yuan Sheng (in my opinion an artist of greater depth), to hear him. Similarly, I look forward to hearing several other pianists whose previous performances at the Festival I admired, including Akiko Ebi and Massimiliano Ferrati.

All of the above is presided over by pianist Jerome Rose, the Founder and Director of the Festival, whose recital opens the series every year, and Festival Director Julie Kedersha.

One notes the passing of time from year to year at the Festival, such as the people who are no longer with us. Two important musicians who were always there in the past, but have left us during the last year, are Harris Goldsmith and German Diez. Harris was one of the most knowledgeable of critics, with whom I always enjoyed discussing, or debating the virtues of whichever pianist was performing. And Mr. Diez was a much beloved pedagogue, who always had the answer when I asked him “What was that last encore?” or “In what key is that piece?”

Alexander Schimpf, who has won numerous prizes and performed a lot both here and in Europe, made a very favorable impression from the beginning of the Bach Toccata, with finely nuanced and well-thought out dynamics. It was anything but dry! Though one could imagine the fugue being played a little slower, for slightly more clarity, one enjoyed the gusto with which he pulled it off.

The work of Adrian Sieber (the English title of which is “Moments – a Collection”) was a study in contrasts, from defiant outbursts to lugubrious hallucinations, though sometimes the one gradually developed into the other. One assumes there are very specific dynamic markings throughout the score. In any case, Mr. Schimpf played it with much seriousness of thought, and intensity.

The beginning of L’isle Joyeuse was fast, impetuous and playful but the following A Major section was appropriately slower, and sensuous. Transitions between sections were logical and effective, and he built up to a huge sound near the end. The audience reacted with great enthusiasm.

The second half of the recital was devoted to Beethoven’s longest, most difficult sonata, and Mr. Schimpf got through it impressively. The first movement was played at an ambitious tempo. With fine control he took us through the tricky passagework, the darting octaves, the gruff and sometimes awkward fugato in the development section and the odd conclusion, where Beethoven builds up tension by getting softer and softer until the final, loud chords.

Mr. Schimpf had just the right feel for the beginning of the second movement, very fast and light, but since one could not always hear the rapidly changing alto voice, one missed a bit of the effect. The long, slow movement was very fine, sensitive and expressive. It is not easy to hold it together convincingly, but he succeeded.

The rather bizarre introduction to the last movement, which, perhaps, gives us an idea of Beethoven improvising, was effectively and dramatically played, and led into an impressive performance of one of the most miserably difficult things the composer ever wrote, the concluding fugue. Mr. Schimpf played it with remarkable clarity, again mastering the tricky leaps, octaves, trills and other obstacles Beethoven constructed for (or perhaps one should say, against) the pianist. The contrasting, slow D Major section was reverently played and, together with all the Sturm und Drang of the rest of the movement, convinced one that this performance was that of a very fine artist.

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