A Pleasure To Hear

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The New York Sun

You don’t have to be Alicia de Larrocha to play Spanish piano music, but it helps.The great lady retired a few years ago, and this repertoire has been seldom heard in our concert halls since. Mme. de Larrocha – as this senora has always been known, for some reason – put Spanish piano music on the map. She championed the twin peaks of that repertoire: Albeniz’s “Iberia” and Granados’s “Goyescas.” But she acquainted us with innumerable other works as well.

No one should have to be compared with Mme. de Larrocha, and I have no intention of comparing Francisco Aybar with her. One should be able to play, say, the “Goyescas” – even the “Goyescas”! – without this tiny giant standing over one’s shoulder. (Mme. de Larrocha is well under 5 feet tall.) And Mr. Aybar, indeed, played the “Goyescas” in Weill Recital Hall on Tuesday night.The event took place under the auspices of the Virtuoso Artists Management Group.

Mr. Aybar was born in the Dominican Republic, and grew up in New York. In addition to Granados, he brought Liszt – who was an influence on Granados, as on so many – to Weill.

In the “Goyescas,” which began his program, Mr. Aybar did several things well. (And I might note, before proceeding,that the title of this work,a sixpiece suite, refers to the Goya paintings by which the composer was inspired.) First, Mr. Aybar’s affection for the “Goyescas” was obvious. Perhaps even more than in his playing, that affection was obvious in the program notes he wrote for the evening. Furthermore, he tended to provide the right inflection, and he always knew where the melody was. This isn’t necessarily easy, amid Granados’s many, swirling notes.

But Mr. Aybar’s technique was not the tidiest. Passagework came with difficulty, and parts that should be sprightly, lilting, or gossamer were heavier than the pianist wanted, surely. Also, singing lines were sometimes less than lyrical.The “Goyescas” are a bear, technically speaking. And I’m afraid that, when you’re contending with the notes, musical expression may take a backseat.

In any case, it was a pleasure – it is always a pleasure – to hear this wonderful work, and no single pianist should own music. The “Goyescas” must survive, post-de Larrocha. But who, really, among major pianists, plays the Spanish repertoire today? Daniel Barenboim – Argentineanborn – now and then. But precious few others, if any. We are deprived not only of Albeniz and Granados, but also of Falla and Turina. Not to mention more obscure (but deserving) composers such as Mompou, Halffter, and Montsalvatge.

And, it should go without saying, you don’t have to be Spanish, or Hispanic, to play this music. Artur Rubinstein loved it, and excelled in it (as he did in everything – he was a musician).

Readers have heard me say it before: The neglect of the Spanish piano repertoire is one of the mysteries and absurdities of our current concert life. This music should be mainstream, not fringe. I hereby nominate a pianist to dive in: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (a Frenchman). With his super-fluid technique, knack for rhythm, and overall flair, he would be splendid.

After intermission, Mr. Aybar turned to his Liszt, beginning with the Petrarch Sonnets. The composer originally wrote them for voice, but he pianified them, as he was wont to do. And Liszt was very successful with these sonnets. Mr. Aybar was successful, too. He was appropriately dreamy, while not allowing the music to become soup.I must report, however, that he was most effective in the less virtuosic parts of these pieces. When the music turned hard – why, Mr. Aybar wrestled.

On the subject of wrestling: Mr. Aybar closed his program with Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1. It takes real technical command to bring this off, and our pianist did not quite show it. Once more, he was at his best when he could be dreamy, without a lot of fingerwork. But he did one thing undeniably Lisztian: He looked heavenward. (This, at a particularly theatrical moment.) And he did another thing Lisztian: He fashioned his own ending, not content with what is written.

Good for him.

At a couple of points during the evening, Mr. Aybar expressed some irritation with the audience (which was far from a disrespectful or disruptive one). In the middle of one of the Petrarch Sonnets, an audience member coughed, somewhat loudly. Mr. Aybar glared at him, as he played. I’ve seen a lot of things, in the concert hall. I’m not sure I’d ever seen that!


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