Thomas Schultz, pianist,
in recital at Weill Hall
June 3, 2005
Although they made the ten minute walk from my apartment to Carnegie Hall a misery, the rain showers that broke out about an hour before concert time failed to dampen the attendance at Thomas Schultz's Weill Hall piano recital. That was a lucky thing, for those who attended - and it was a very full house - got to hear a real musician working at the top of his form.
Mr. Schultz is an experienced veteran of the concert stage. Although I had never had the opportunity to hear him before, his name was familiar to me as one of the leading pianists in the new music field. This gave me a momentary pang when I saw that the program was to include music by Schubert and Liszt beside the works of Frederic Rzewski with whom Schultz has been closely associated and Karlheinz Stockhausen whose work, generally, I would do almost anything to avoid. As it turned out, a gorgeous reading of the "Wanderer" Fantasy was the highlight of the evening, but more about that later.
The program opened with two of Rzewski's Four Pieces for Piano, written in 1977 for another pianist who specializes in contemporary work, Ursula Oppens. The first slowly wandering unisons, spaced differently and in different registers, made clear to this listener that a truly sensitive ear for sound quality and color was at work here. This initial impression was thoroughly borne out by Mr.Schultz's playing throughout the evening - he has what, to me, is the most important asset of any pianist, an individual sound which is clearly under his control. He also uses it with great taste and intelligence. Frederic Rzewski himself is a fine pianist with a big technique, and his piano music does not make any concessions to amateurs. Not surprisingly given his reputation, Schultz proved thoroughly up to the task and made a convincing case for these two pure piano pieces - I say "pure" to make clear that while they call for all the standard piano technique including some delicately dangerous middle-pedal sonic effects, they do not, as Rzewski's music sometimes does, demand that the performer sing, shout or wave his arms around like a maniac. This, I think, is a good thing.
Now, about that "Wanderer" Fantasy - this was a deliberately paced, careful reading, not the virtuoso romp usually heard from better known, and generally younger artists. There is reason behind this. Mr. Schultz chooses tempi which allow him to play cleanly, but more importantly, to show to his listeners that intricate combination of details - harmonic and thematic material, modulations and articulations - which carry the real content of this piece in such a vivid way that the audience is hooked. The man who gave this performance has both a deep understanding of Schubert's music and the ability to communicate it. That is rare.....and glorious.
Stockhausen's Klavierstucke IX opened the second half of the program. I am tempted to write the less said about it the better and leave it at that, but having had Mr. Schultz's genuinely communicative and committed playing so convincingly demonstrated to me in the first half of the program, I really felt a responsibility to buckle down and try to "get" this piece. Alas, it didn't work. It all sounded pretty random to me and I can only say, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I don't like carrots or deKooning either.
Wrapping up the evening's program were three Liszt pieces, two from the last years of his life, and the earlier, hyper-famous and wildly extrovert Mephisto Waltz No. 1, a staple of piano recitals of all kinds since it was written. Of the two late works, Nuages Gris from 1881 is the more familiar. Both it and its companion piece Resignazione of 1877 are spare and simple in the technical sense having been written long after Liszt retired from the concert stage. No longer interested in virtuoso display, and writing in a style eerily prescient of the early 1900s though he would not live to see the new century himself, it is said that Liszt advised his students not to play these pieces for fear of damaging their careers. Listening to Mr. Schultz traverse this bleak terrain one was moved by the emotional impact carried by these tiny pieces. Liszt, the old conjurer, still had the goods.
Goods of a different kind were on display as the ubiquitous Mephisto Waltz No. 1 closed the recital. The tempi were perhaps a bit careful, and one never had the sense that he really let the devil loose, but there were a minimum of fluffed notes and always, always that gorgeous sound and beautifully balanced voicing. Not a performance to make the hair stand up but a very satisfying one, and one in which the music - and there's some awfully good music in there - came first. Thomas Schultz is very often an excellent pianist, but much better than that, he is never less than an excellent musician.