To what degree is a player responsible for individual interpretation of a piece of music? When playing a piece of composed music, should the question be whether or not a performer should add any individual interpretation at all beyond the dynamics suggested by the composer? Geoffrey Burleson’s virtuosic performance of French Baroque and Romantic piano works at Trinity Church on Thursday tackled those questions.
His careful, precise, rippling approach of Rameau’s Gavotte avec Six Doubles set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. It’s court music: a stately dance and variations. As Burleson did it, it’s almost a march. That he found that inner core and worked it as hard, yet as effortlessly as he did, was an auspicious beginning. Saint-Saens’ Suite, Op. 90 was next. Burleson played it from memory with the same seamless precision. The question is, do you take chances with this? Or, are there any chances that can be taken with this, short of turning it into salsa, or hip-hop, or punk rock, in the process alienating many of those who know and love this music? Saint-Saens wove a series of variations on familiar themes together into this characteristically bright, warmly melodic partita: a prelude and fugue, a minuet, a gavotte and a gigue, and Burleson made them completely at home with a comfortable, fluid approach. Interestingly, he followed with Saint-Saens’ Allegro Appasionatto, Op 70 which is anything but, until its slow starlit crescendo kicks in.
The revelation in the program was Roy Harris’ Sonata, Op. 1, gospel-inflected fervor followed by fierily rumbling melody, equal parts blues and Romanticism and then a murky, martial fugue that hinted at the macabre but never quite went there. Whatever the dynamics for that piece were, it was a showstopper. He went back to carefully precise, rippling mode for Ravel’s Ondine and Scarbo from the Gaspard de Nuit suite, letting the nocturnal atmospherics ring out simply and unaffectedly without adding any fireworks or mist. That he could do this all from memory, all of it comfortably in his fingers, speaks volumes. His next performance is at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, 319 W 107th St. on February 19 at 5 PM with violinist Janet Packer, playing music of Debussy, Pierne, Kryzsztof Meyer and Vittorio Rieti, a chance to hear an entirely different side of a gifted performer.
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