Eric Clark Channels Liszt at Trinity Church
Isn’t it ironic that some of the most technically skilled musicians are sometimes the most soulless? One would think that the higher degree of proficiency a musician has, the greater the ability to communicate the most minute shade of emotion or complex idea. Sadly, that’s often not the case. Franz Liszt still gets pigeonholed as one of those technicians, somebody who wasted notes like a broken hydrant wastes water, and that’s too bad. Pianist Eric Clark’s virtuosic yet minutely nuanced performance of Liszt works today at Trinity Church validated any argument that Liszt’s soul matched his chops.
Much of Liszt may be fiendishly difficult to play, but Clark began counterintuitively with a masterfully spacious, thoughtfully paced take of Spozalizio (Italian for “wedding,” inspired by Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin), setting the tone with its High Romantic warmth and lyricism. This was echoed a bit later in two settings of Petrarch sonnets (nos. 104 and 123), originally written as songs. The former manages to reach back to Bach as well as foreshadow the Electric Light Orchestra, with its swelling, alternating major and minor chords; the latter is a nocturne, Clark returning to the sensitive, judicious pacing of the first work. It’s not often that audiences get to hear the thoughtful side of Liszt: kudos to Clark for delivering it with grace and, if anything, understatement.
The piece de resistance was Apres Une Lecture De Dante (After Reading Dante), a hybrid sonata/fantasia, as the composer described it, that alternates a trip through hell with starlit, glimmering passages offering hope for an entirely different outcome in the afterlife. This was trademark fire-and-brimstone Liszt – literally – and Clark took the crowd along for a long, cinematic, chromatically-charged thrill ride interrupted memorably by the occasional rapt evocation of heavenly bliss.
Clark ended the program with Liszt’s arrangement of themes from Mozart’s Don Juan. That he would tackle it at all was brave; that he would pull it off flawlessly was an astonishing athletic feat. But as music, it was boring. For one, the source material is schlock to the core (one of Liszt’s dayjobs was playing the hits of the day, or the era, to rowdy concert hall audiences). And even the great Liszt would eventually run out of gas. It doesn’t take a close listen to hear how methodically – and after awhile, utterly predictably – he built little breaks in between the incessant pyrotechnics to give his fingers a bit of a rest from the rapidfire staccato octaves up the scale, meticulously pointillistic chromatics runs downward and roaring, torrential crescendos. And every one of those devices is employed to the point of overkill: there should be a drinking game where somebody has to chug whenever one of them appears. But the crowd gave Clark a standing ovation, and he had an encore ready – something he’s had to get used to by now, now doubt. It turned out to be a stormy, distantly Chopinesque prelude that only offered respite for his right hand, not his left. The way he did it, it almost looked easy.
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