Our Last Romantic

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The New York Sun

Every generation has its “last Romantic,” a pianist who captures, to an extraordinary degree, the windswept spirit of the late 19th-century Lisztian camp. Josef Hofmann was the first last Romantic, bringing into the 1930s and ’40s the wisdom of the previous century. A decade later, Vladimir Horowitz followed suit. The 1960s brought Artur Rubinstein, who learned from masters who learned from masters of the original stripe. And in more modern times, the last Romantic was the cult figure Shura Cherkassky.

Jerome Rose might be considered the last Romantic of our own age. A Liszt specialist, he was known in his youth as a formidable advocate for the golden age’s most virtuosic piano music. Later, he became a scholar and eventually founded the annual International Keyboard Institute & Festival at the Mannes College of Music. The festival, which features no less than 28 concerts over two weeks, opened Sunday evening with a recitalist none other than Mr. Rose himself.

His appearance did not go unnoticed: The hall was bursting. Fans sat on the floor, stood at the back, even perched cross-legged atop some of the spare pianos in the room. All was in place for a superb recital. But the recitalist started off on the wrong foot. The leonine Mr. Rose presented the opening work, Mozart’s Sonata in C minor, K. 457, as if it were written by some minor acolyte or epigone of Liszt. Stylistically anachronistic, the performance was also surprisingly inaccurate: Entire passages were seemingly uttered extemporaneously and fingered cavalierly. I feared it was to be a bumpy night.

Thankfully, Mr. Rose righted the ship immediately thereafter. With the following work, the world premiere of “Intermezzo” by Paul Schoenfield, the pianist employed both printed music and a page-turner, and appeared to reproduce the score, even the occasional minor second that rendered this otherwise melodious music discordant, faithfully.

Once Mr.Rose plunged headlong into the Romantic, he was in steady waters. Curiously, there appeared to be a direct ratio between the degree of technical difficulty and Mr. Rose’s facilities with a particular piece. This unique recitalist soundly traversed Robert Schumann’s notoriously devilish Sonata in G minor, Op. 22. He made child’s play of many of its most difficult passages, producing a limpid and powerfully drawn rendition.

For better or worse, everything about Mr. Rose — his aesthetic, his style, and his sporadic shortcomings of dexterity — came together for a memorable reading of Chopin’s Four Ballades. Yes, all four were played in order, even though the composer never intended for them to be offered as such. How Mr. Rose chose to perform these magnificent essays will certainly create controversy, and that is a good thing for music that depends so much on its frisson. He insisted on living on the edge throughout, creating generous slathers of rubato, heart-stopping pauses, big dynamic contrasts, and runs and trills begun just slightly after their downbeat.

If hearing all the notes in their proper place is your cup of tea, then you will probably not care much for Jerome Rose. But if the tingling sensation of the unexpected in your spine is the reason you come to hear such emotional music, then you could do much worse than a program by this necromancer who celebrates the Romantic pianist as the kissing cousin of that other emerging artist of the 19th century, the circus performer. For me, these daring experiments were mighty as a rose.

The International Keyboard Institute and Festival runs until July 30 at Mannes College (150 W. 85th Street).

The New York Sun

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