Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Embassy Series concerts and recitals, usually performed at embassies or ambassadorial residences in the District, have consistently offered interesting, unusual and highly intellectual programs presented by acclaimed artists from around the world.

Friday’s recital by pianist Daniel Buranovsky, performed at the Embassy of the Slovak Republic, was a highly effective case in point.

Mr. Buranovsky, a native of Slovakia, showcased the music of his country, much of it unfamiliar to American audiences. But he took his program one step further. By opening with modern compositions and following these with works from influential masters of the past century (as well as some from the 19th century), he demonstrated the close links connecting contemporary Slovak composers with their Slavic musical forbears.

Yet the daring part of Mr. Buranovsky’s presentation was the way he performed his program.

During the first half, for instance, Mr. Buranovsky led with a sonata for piano (subtitled “Dreams of My Childhood”) by contemporary composer Jevgenij Irsai. Although dominated by the persistent martial motif that quietly opens the dissonant but tonal work and comes to dominate it, some of this composition’s elements have earlier roots in a work such as Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G-minor, Op. 23, which opened the program’s second half. Both share repetitive phrases as well as extended dissonances that beg to be resolved. To emphasize this, the pianist sometimes overemphasized in the Chopin the elements that later served to influence the Irsai, thus inviting the comparison.

Similarly, Mr. Buranovsky demonstrated the parallels in the use of extended tonality — a more accessible modernist alternative to atonality between contemporary composer Eugen Suchon and the enigmatic late-Romantic master Leos Janacek. Once again, Mr. Buranovsky strongly drew out those traits in Janacek’s four-part piano cycle, “Into the Mists,” that are paralleled in Suchon’s “Little Suite with Passacaglia,” Op. 3, including the odd but interesting key resolutions and vicious passagework that dominates both pieces.

Mr. Buranovsky’s third pairing of works contrasted Hanus Domansky’s 1980 composition “Dithyrambes” with Franz Liszt’s bravura piano concert “paraphrase” of a famous tune from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” (Although widely denigrated by contemporary critics, Liszt’s concert paraphrases brought the newest works of opera masters to the wider, more economically diverse audiences who often attended his barnstorming piano tours.) Liszt’s concert paraphrases all involve exciting if excessive flourishes, trills and ornamentation along with wickedly difficult passages intended to confound most mortal pianists. The “Rigoletto” paraphrase was no exception — and yet again, the comparison with “Dithyrambes” proved apt. On the edge of tonality and sometimes crossing its bounds, Domansky’s composition is a series of linked minipieces, most of which are brisk, occasionally bombastic, and always challenging to the pianist who undertakes them. They are at once a flourish, an entertainment and a demonstration of the pianist’s prowess, as was the case with the Liszt paraphrases.

Mr. Buranovsky’s risky cultural music lesson required him to perform each of these works in a fashion that demonstrated their close affinity. In addition, in the modern works, the pianist chose to draw out other musical parallels as well that did not appear on the program — including allusions to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in the Irsai, to Scriabin’s extended, mystical chords and phraseology in the Suchon, and to the considerable influence of Bela Bartok’s short piano works in the Domansky.

Mr. Buranovsky’s bracing recital offered an intellectual challenge to his audience: a summons to once again learn from and build upon the work laid down by our artistic predecessors rather than rejecting it as irrelevant or hopelessly outmoded in our tempestuous times — the fashionable tactic of increasingly out-of-touch postmodernists.

Indeed, we can learn and benefit from our experiences, and use that knowledge to bring artistic — and yes, political — traditions forward, transforming them for our own times rather than unnecessarily rejecting them out of hand. It’s a lesson well-worth heeding, taught by a brilliantly gifted young artist who chooses to speak his mind and his heart through his music.

*** 1/2


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