Anton Kuerti

The Pianist as Performer: a Discordant Recital

"Evenings of Music"
for the Fairfield (CT) Citizen News
by John Mucci

Pianist Anton Kuerti, fifth artist presented in Fairfield University's "Evenings of Music" series, performed in his recent concert two sonatas by Beethoven, and one by Schubert.

The sonata is an old and respected musical form, embodying several musical conventions in its most classic style, but one which is generally dedicated to presenting two divergent—many times bipolar—ideas. Through the skill and imagination of both composer and performer, these opposites are developed separately, combined, or reconciled in some emotional or inttellectual way. Normally, a pianst will tackle such problems only musically. But Kuerti managed to alienate much of his audience, thereby creating a physical, palpable, bipolarization, which was fascinatiing to watch. Such physical and musical problems had to be overcome, and the performance was—if I may continue the analogy—succesful in half its endeavor, and a failure in the remaining half.

He plays, first of all, in that personally affected manner which I had hoped was no longer fashionable, with fluid wrist spasms, and unnecessary flourishes. They are forgiveable in Kuerti's case, however, because he played Beethoven's Sonata in E major (Op. 109) superbly. The dichotomy of sight versus sound added immeasurably to the piece.

Sometime in his life, Ludwig van Beethoven must have regretted that humans are born with only ten fingers. Kuerti's performance seemed to defy such limitations, taking up his countryman's challenge, dividing the two hands into extreme highs and lows, alternating with the weaving of a homogeneous sound-fabric in the center of the keyboard. The divergent elements in the music are unabashedly schizoid; at this point, Beethoven's impending deafness allowed him his most acute hearing at the highest and lowest sound registers. Passages abound with the melody sailing up in the top end, and the extreme bass loudly growling out the darkest of harmonies. It makes for a hollow, almost desperate sound. And yet, there are moments of profound introspection here that represent Beethoven at his most resigned. In the first case, Kuerti has a brave, almost quixotic pedalfoot and a martellato that could crack cement. In the second, his gesangvoll is pure anodyne of quiet passion.

This led to the next bifuraction in the performance. Perhaps no more intelligent a pedaller there is besides Kuerti, in all pianism. This aspect is often neglected, because of the general disapprobation we accord feet outside the Rockettes and the decathlon; but the division between keys and pedals was remarkable, alternately blurring and delineating, characterizing the Beethoven in a most original way.

The E-major Sonata ends with a series of variations, and ends with a mighty trill that dominates and summarizes the piece, concluding with an ephemeral coda. Kuerti then disappeared quickly: he seemed barely pleased.

This performer has a reminiscence of Alt Wien about him, in his blue velvet suit. It distances him from us. Futhermore, two his brief comments before the next piece, one: that he had heard the acoustics are terrible in the room, and two, (somewhat belying the first) that he could hear everyone out there perfectly well, jewelry rattling, programs scraping and all, which suddenly made everyone feel uncomfortable, perfectly setting the scene for the "Waldstein Sonata" which followed. (Both comments were probably reeasonable; but it was the admonition to "be careful next time" that made everyone so anxious and afraid to move a muscle. The whole tension thus supplied was splendidly intensified by janitors upstairs moving around heavy furniture or zinc washtubs or something equally ponderous. The vicarious guilt added much.)

Again, Kuerti's affinity for Beethoven was apparent in the "Waldstein." Such a famous work is often difficult to approach, but he went at it with a will. And yet the pianist was plainly at odds with his instrument. That monolithic black narwhal that Fairfield University bought from Steinway under the impression that it is a pianoforte once again showed its full frequency range. The treble half loves to be capricious, now flat, now very flat, now embarrassingly flat.

The rippling sequences of the "Waldstein" rolled off Kuerti's fingers. It is a relentless piece, full of bravura and passion. The phrases build to a powerul pinnacle, only to be supplanted by a new series, which build similarly, to be supplanted again (much as Wagner was later famously to do): it is strong material to work with. in the wagging, rubicund face, the apoplectic quiverings, the driving energy of the performer, the power of the first movement came through.

Then it stopped.

The brief, slow sections of the "Waldstein" and the rest of the concert were mechanical; technically proficient, but performed by a fellow whose intent seemed focused on little else than technical proficiency. He fulfilled his audience in the first half of the concert; he fulfilled his contract in the second.

Schubert's "Moments Musicaux", pressed flat between the Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, had to the the most dispassionate, vapid little nothings ever written by that composer. Like chocolates left in the box (because everyone knows and disapproves of how they taste) they reveal nothing new on sampling them.

It is a pity that Kuerti inverted his program at the last moment; had he begun with Schubert, as planned, and ended with Beethoven, there was a chance to build, to reconcile and reunite the physical and musical elements at Fairfield's auditorium. I think it unfortunate that he was unable to play his audience as well as the piano. There were no encores.