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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Concert Review: A Voice in the Crowd

Pianist Eric Huebner gives a Messiaen Week recital.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Image by commonmarket for
If you were to list the great concert pianists on the classical scene today, you'd probably miss Eric Huebner. That's because Mr. Huebner is the current holder of the piano chair with the New York Philharmonic. He spends most of his  time providing 88-key support in major orchestral works and occasionally playing chamber music with other orchestra members. On Wednesday night, the Philharmonic's current Messiaen Week festival offered Mr. Huebner a chance at the solo spotlight with a recital all to his own.

Like the chamber music concert that kicked off this celebration earlier this week, this concert featured a program that explored Messiaen's  past influences as well as the composers who either followed in his footsteps or were instructed by him directly. Playing at the Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church (situated just a block away from David Geffen Hall) Mr. Huebner opened with one of the influnces: the Prelude elegaique by Paul Dukas, who was Messiaen's teacher.

Although the handful of surviving works that Dukas left (he burned a number of his scores) finds him lumped in with the impressionists, the Prelude elegaique shows the French composer employing rigorous technique. Each key note is built on a letter of Haydn's name, and the work combines French galant style with Haydn-esque wit and humor. Mr. Huebner's fingers danced through this complicated music with liquid ease.

Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu is the sixth of the eight Preludes that Messiaen wrote in 1929. An early example of his style, it lacks the definitive features of the mature composer such as the use of gamelan rhythms or bird-songs. That came later. The juxtaposition of the work with the Dukas composition allowed the listener to hear the elder composer's influence on Messiaen's early development. Here, the pianist captured the sense of yearning and search in this early work, as well as the audible influence of Debussy on the young Messiaen.

This was followed by Cloches d'Adieu, written in memory of Messiaen by his own student, Tristan Murail. Mr. Murail, whose spectacular spectral piano concerto premiered last season at the Philharmonic, works in electronically determined microtones to create a unique sound that recalls the dream-like reveries of Messiaen's later works. Mr. Huebner coped with the formidable challenges of this work with power and grace.

After a brief pause, Mr. Huebner addressed the audience, discussing how the next two pieces were by composers that followed in Messiaen's footsteps. The first was Sortilèges by George Benjamin, a formidable work with its use of low rhythms, high harmonies and chords that yielded repeatedly to the sharp bark of tone clusters up and down the keyboard. The second was Pièce pour by Betsy Jolas, an American composer who was another important Messiaen pupil. Veering between harmony and dischord, these were a disconcerting and yet emotionally potent works, technically demanding and thrilling to the ear.

Following these, the two selections from Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus were a balm to the ears, as Messiaen's celestial, unconventiional harmonies flowed from Mr. Huebner's fingers. Here was the composer fully formed, with the right hand playing the trills and chatters of bird-songs transcribed by the composer and carefully added to the music. Regard de l'Esprit de joie was bright and melodius. Le baiser de l'Enfant-Jésus was made of steelier stuff, but was shot through with that sensation of ecstasy that infuses this composer's best music. 

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