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James M. Keller on the artistry of pi­anist Anne-Marie McDer­mott

The work that graced the sec­ond half of the Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val Con­cert on Aug. 16 was such a cu­rios­ity that no­body in the Len­sic would likely have imag­ined who had com­posed it if they had not known in ad­vance. At least the an­swer wouldn’t have dawned on them through the first two of its four sprawl­ing move­ments, af­ter which hints started to ac­cu­mu­late that pointed to Béla Bartók.

Bartók has one of the most dis­tinct pro­files in clas­si­cal mu­sic, usu­ally rec­og­niz­able right away through his rhyth­mic ve­he­mence, tightly coiled melodies, or mys­te­ri­ous in­stru­men­tal sounds. But com­posers never start where they end up, and his Pi­ano Quin­tet, which was the piece that Anne-Marie McDer­mott and the Mi­ami String Quar­tet played so ca­pa­bly, falls very near to the great Hun­gar­ian com­poser’s be­gin­nings. When he com­posed it, in 1903-1904, he was em­bark­ing on a ca­reer as a con­cert pi­anist, but there were dis­trac­tions. He was busily com­pos­ing, although he had not yet de­vel­oped a dis­tinct ex­pres­sive voice; and just as he was com­plet­ing this piece, he got swept up in en­thu­si­asm for col­lect­ing folk songs. That would be­come one of the defin­ing pur­suits of his life, and it would spark the in­di­vid­u­al­ity of his style as a com­poser.

The Pi­ano Quin­tet has some­thing to do with Brahms in its so­lid­ity, and even more to do with Liszt in cer­tain bravado turns of phrase. Both of those com­posers har­bored a fond­ness for “the Hun­gar­ian style,” a pop-clas­si­cal cross­over of that time; think of Brahms’ Hun­gar­ian Dances and Liszt’s Hun­gar­ian Rhap­sodies. Liszt made much of his pre­sumed Hun­gar­ian ori­gins, although in truth he was born in a town that is to­day in Aus­tria (though it was then in the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire), grew up in a Ger­man-speak­ing house­hold, felt more com­fort­able writ­ing in French, and pos­sessed prac­ti­cally no knowl­edge of the Hun­gar­ian tongue. He none­the­less claimed Hun­gar­ian essence, which proved a smart mar­ket­ing move in a Europe that was fas­ci­nated by Ro­man­tic ex­oti­cism. The Hun­gar­i­ans took it as a com­pli­ment, and they pro­moted Liszt as a mu­si­cal ex­em­plar in their own na­tion. The first recital Bartók played in 1901 as a new stu­dent at the Royal Na­tional Academy of Mu­sic in Bu­dapest (es­tab­lished by Liszt and later re­named the Franz Liszt Academy of Mu­sic) spot­lighted Liszt’s B-mi­nor Sonata, and his grad­u­a­tion recital, in May 1903, fea­tured the same com­poser’s

Rhap­sodie es­pag­nole.

The mu­si­cians seemed well-matched and uni­formly de­voted to mak­ing the case for this rarely vis­ited work. The Mi­ami String Quar­tet can be a bit roug­hand-tum­ble in its ap­proach, but the Bartók Pi­ano Quin­tet doesn’t make great de­mands in the sub­tlety de­part­ment. Apart from oc­ca­sional shrill­ness from the first vi­o­lin, the group of­fered a broad but con­sis­tent read­ing that gave free rein to thick vi­bratos, in­tense bow­ing, and em­phatic dy­nam­ics. McDer­mott

held up her side of the bar­gain in ad­mirable fash­ion, play­ing deep in the keys with her ac­cus­tomed pre­ci­sion of touch, rock-solid tone, and clar­ity of phras­ing. She rose to the oc­ca­sion for solois­tic mo­ments but mostly sought un­os­ten­ta­tious cham­ber-mu­sic bal­ance that made the piece come across as an ac­tual quin­tet rather than a com­pe­ti­tion be­tween pi­ano and strings. The first move­ment in­cludes some pas­sages of gor­geous rip­pling key­board fig­u­ra­tion of which Bartók must have been proud; McDer­mott ren­dered them like limpid surges from an el­e­gantly de­signed foun­tain.

The first move­ment seemed a se­ries of in­ter­est­ing odds and ends that kept pil­ing up, ul­ti­mately reach­ing a blus­tery pas­sage that sug­gested much ado about rather lit­tle. The sec­ond move­ment scherzo em­ploys quick al­ter­na­tions of du­ple and triple rhythms that, in ret­ro­spect, seem to point to a Bartókian fin­ger­print, but it also in­cludes (in its Trio sec­tion) an upward-sweep­ing yo­del that could have been plucked from Dvorˇák. Bartók’s Mag­yar core be­gins to re­veal it­self more in the third move­ment, a me­an­der­ing Ada­gio that for a while plants it­self in a Bu­dapest café. Here, McDer­mott plumbed the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the pi­ano as cim­balom and the string play­ers fo­cused more on ges­tures of pas­sion. The cim­balom style made a pleas­ing ap­pear­ance again in the fi­nale, duet­ting in se­quence with cello, vi­ola, and sec­ond vi­o­lin. That was a quickly pass­ing in­ter­lude in a con­clud­ing move­ment that was mostly given over to ideas struc­tured in the slow-fast pairs of phrases that were el­e­men­tal to “the Hun­gar­ian style.” Bartók’s Pi­ano Quin­tet runs some 40 min­utes that don’t re­ally co­here, but it does dis­play one of the 20th cen­tury’s most es­sen­tial cham­ber com­posers on the verge of step­ping into his fu­ture.

On Aug. 18, McDer­mott ap­peared in another fes­ti­val con­cert — an im­pres­sive all-Bach solo recital in the more in­ti­mate set­ting of St. Fran­cis Au­di­to­rium. She has recorded a swath of reper­toire, her most re­cent re­lease be­ing a vi­brant two-CD set (on the Bridge la­bel) of Haydn sonatas and con­cer­tos; for one of the lat­ter (in G ma­jor) the mod­ern com­poser Charles Wuori­nen penned puck­ish ca­den­zas as icing for the cake. At the out­set of her discog­ra­phy, how­ever, stands a Bach disc that con­tains sev­eral of that com­poser’s Par­ti­tas and Suites, a record­ing that serves as a firm foun­da­tion for her en­su­ing work and be­came rather a touchstone in her pub­lic iden­tity as a pi­anist. Two of the pieces on that disc fig­ured in her fes­ti­val recital, the A-mi­nor English Suite and the C-mi­nor Par­tita.

She ren­dered the English Suite vir­tu­osi­cally, with tem­pos that, in the fast move­ments, were at least fleet. The im­mense open­ing Pre­lude raced along as a giddy two-part in­ven­tion, and the con­clud­ing gigue left one down­right dizzy. The record­ings of Glenn Gould are a defin­ing in­flu­ence for many mod­ern pi­anists who turn their at­ten­tion to Bach, and I sus­pect that McDer­mott is among their ad­mir­ers — or at least that she has found them stim­u­lat­ing. Her play­ing re­flects some­thing of his hy­per-clar­ity as well as an in­ter­pre­ta­tive ap­proach in which in­ner lines take on a vi­brant life that may not ap­pear ob­vi­ous from the score. Her ar­tic­u­la­tion was etched as if by an X-Acto Knife; there was never the slight­est doubt about what she wished to con­vey. For all its un­flag­ging en­ergy, there was also a great deal of more un­der­stated beauty in this read­ing, nowhere more than in the rus­tic earth­i­ness of the Bour­rée II.

Her ap­proach in the Par­tita was not so in­sis­tently ath­letic, although she could never be ac­cused of slack­ness. Af­ter the tragic drama of the open­ing mea­sures, the coun­ter­point of the Ada­gio flowed forth grace­fully be­fore the move­ment cli­maxes in a fugue of im­pla­ca­ble en­ergy. As in the Sec­ond English Suite, McDer­mott had strong ideas about where to di­rect lis­ten­ers’ ears — of­ten to a phrase within the tex­ture, which she might sig­nal with a dy­namic out­burst from which she would re­cede rather quickly once the point had been made. When move­ment sec­tions were re­peated, she tended to in­fuse the mu­sic with a very dif­fer­ent tim­bre the sec­ond time around. She al­lowed lit­tle or no space be­tween move­ments, which com­pelled her read­ings right through to the end of the con­clud­ing Capric­cio, which smacked of highly wrought bit­ter­ness. Her recital ended with a mag­is­te­rial per­for­mance of Bu­soni’s ar­range­ment of the Cha­conne from Bach’s D-mi­nor Par­tita for Un­ac­com­pa­nied Vi­o­lin. Here McDer­mott adopted a less strait­ened pi­anis­tic style, us­ing the ped­als a good deal more than she had in the ear­lier items. The re­sult­ing at­mos­phere was filled with rev­er­en­tial grandeur that, strange to say, made me think of El­gar.

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