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Trip on a Liszt-ing Ship

Commanding pianist Adam Neiman delivered an impressive feat Friday at Hahn Hall, in the current Camerata Pacifica season

Santa Barbara News-Press
October 17, 2011
By Josef Woodard

For the second concert of its new season, Friday night at Hahn Hall, the ever-impressive and indispensible chamber group Camerata Pacifica took a bit of a detour from its normal programming groove, with the sound of one musician playing rather than the typical ensemble fare. And yet the deviation was a logical and inspirational one, as the boldly talented pianist Adam Neiman braved the innately challenging magnum opus of the hour-plus solo piano work “Transcendental Etudes”, by the Franz Liszt, subject of a bicentennial birthday this year.

Mr. Neiman’s solo flight made perfect and poetic sense, given the “chamber music” qualifier at the core of Camerata Pacifica’s artistic agenda. While the pianist has alighted numerous local stages in recent years, through the Camerata Pacifica and as soloist with the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, it was this powerful pianistic evening which dazzled most, for sheer musical power and depth of understanding in a concentrated package.

In the larger, cross-institutional scheme of this year’s classical music calendar in Santa Barbara, it also slipped nicely into a succession of memorable, heroic piano works performed in town, from Peter Serkin’s command performance of Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” at the Lobero Theatre early in the year and a wowing two-piano triumph as Ursula Oppens and Jerome aLowenthal performed Messiaen’s great “Visions de l’Amen” this summer as part of the Music Academy of the West.

Liszt’s grand twelve-part opus, its final, definitive version completed in 1852, clocks in at just over an hour in length, and to flesh out the program, the organization had the pianist offer a 45-minute lecture and Q&A as the concert’s “first half”. In verbal program note mode, he is articulate and interesting, and his rambling commentary may have been illuminating to some in the house. But it was distracting to those of us who believe in the sanctity of the classical concert experience, as a kind of no-talk zone where the music speaks for itself.

At long last, Mr. Neiman, the musician, dove into the Etudes and impressed from square one, the genial and only mildly stormy gush of the prelude and Molto Vivace movement. We were off and running, and being lured deeply into a powerful self-contained musical world.

What transpires over the course of the dozen etudes amounts to what may be the composer’s grandest single solo piano statement. As Mr. Neiman pointed out in his verbalized notes, Liszt was a complex beast of a virtuoso pianist and composer, who sought to become the “Paganini of the piano” and “flirted with both the devil and God.” He also hinted at musical ideas as-yet officially born in the broad spectrum of the musical scene of the day, including impressionism and shades of atonalism.

Those polarities, restless exploratory instincts and prophetic qualities in Liszt’s musical being can be detected in the varied architecture of the “Transcendental Etudes”, and Mr. Neiman made the contours and dynamic drama clear and persuasive throughout. Things shift in density, mood, harmonic language and degrees of shameless look-at-me pyrotechnics (the showboating “Lisztomaniac” impulse) versus calmer reverie. The airy “Paysage” segues into the virulent energy tides of the “Mazeppa” movement, a programmatic interpretation of a poem by Victor Hugo.

A vaporous atmosphere prevails in the “Feux Follets”, with its pre-impressionistic ripples and lapping harmonies, but still with that surging, overheated mid-19th century romantic chest-beating spirit. History sneaks into the musical picture in this often programmatic suite in the form of “Vision” and “Eroica”, alluding to Napoleon Bonaparte, and the intensifying musical drama of movements such as “the wild hunt” and the slap-you-around “Allegro agitato molto” eases into the cooling touches of the final etudes, “Evening harmonies” and the “snowfall”, a gently dark-ish, wintry touch of tenderness to close.

All in all, the clearly inspired and technically adroit Mr. Neiman put in a suitably potent and delicate reading of this grand work. It was a gripping encounter with a challenging masterpiece, in which he brought out the full, fleshy and three-dimensional emotionality and sonic powers of a score not to be trifled with. Somehow, in spite of the lean resources on stage, he put across the energy of an ensemble, within one frame, one instrument, and embroiled in masterful music of many “personalities”.