Benjamin Hochman gave a recital here on Thursday night that was as lovely an argument for substance over flash as one could wish for. It also featured a very enjoyable balance the familiar and the unfamiliar.
Familiar: a Schubert sonata and Brahms fantasies I slapped my way through many years ago.
Unfamiliar: Bartók Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs and Widmann Idyll und Abgrund: Six Schubert Reminiscences. The former pulled the handsome trick of sounding like Bartók without sounding quite like any Bartók I had ever heard before. Completed in 1920, the Improvisations evince a familiarity with the composer’s pre-12-tone Viennese peers, especially in their aphoristic discourse and elusive cadences. And yet, there are the Hungarian peasant tunes, exerting their modal influence over the expressionistic contours.
The Widmann took attractive Schubert figures and surrounded them with delicate clusters and brutal outbursts, alternately caressing and abusing the source material in a way that was, for this listener, captivating. Jorg Widmann, in addition to being a composer, is apparently an accomplished clarinetist, with an uncanny grasp of the piano’s expressive capabilities.
The Bartók and the Widmann shared a sensitivity to the resonance older musics can have for later ages, as well as a nice mastery of the miniature.
Meanwhile, Hochman. First, a disclaimer: Benjamin has recorded my piano quartet (congrats, Judy!), so he is a colleague, not a stranger. Not that we go way back, but at least we go back as far as the beginning of this decade. Now for the gushing: the guy is a major artist. As I said at the top, this was substance over flash, poetry over spectacle. The performance of the Schubert Sonata was that of a pianist giving his all for every note, yet always holding something back, a balancing act that seems particularly appropriate for Schubert. The performance was never about timbre, but the range of colors he brought to bear on this piece, on the whole evening, was phenomenal.
So, yeah, he is a colleague – but I am also a fan.