April 21 Adams Foundation Series: Joseph Kalichstein Joseph Kalichstein sings and dances his way through the ‘miracle of Schubert’

Joseph Kalichstein

By Kevin Moore

The acclaimed pianist’s all-Schubert program a masterful blend of color, touch, balance, voicing and pedaling

The Adams Foundation Piano Series presented pianist Joseph Kalichstein in recital this past Sunday afternoon at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, NY. This distinguished pianist has a career stretching back more than four decades and has been soloist with just about every famous conductor and orchestra in the world during that time. He is also a founding member of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, one of the best around. And he’s director of chamber music at The Juilliard School of Music.

I have warm memories of a recital of piano fantasies I heard him do when I was a graduate student in New York City. That was at Hunter College on March 17, 1972 and was devoted to fantasies by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Mozart and Schubert. I still have the printed program and review (Allen Hughes, NY Times) in my possession. The only thing that has changed since then is the depth and richness of thought, not to mention tone. Ironically, the only work the critic in 1972 dislike was Kalichstein’s Schubert (Wanderer Fantasy). In the program of this past Sunday, his Schubert was almost beyond criticism.

Speaking to the audience at the outset, the pianist explained the title he had given his program, Schubert: A Dance, A Song, A Miracle. He explained that Schubert’s music was rooted in dance, whether waltz, landler, minuet or German dance of any kind. The music is also rooted in song, of which Schubert wrote hundreds.

As for the miracle, he mentioned the extraordinary productivity of Schubert’s last two years, particularly his final year. Two months before his death and during one two week period, Schubert wrote his last three piano sonatas — each one a masterpiece. (One of those formed the second half of Sunday’s program.) In that same year he wrote the second of his two great song cycles, the E-flat major Piano Trio, the Quintet for Strings in C major, his last symphony, and several other imperishable masterpieces.

Kalichstein was right that such productivity counts as one of the great miracles in the history of music. In fact, he was right on all counts. What he didn’t mention, but I will now, is that the word miracle could also be applied to the quality of playing throughout Sunday’s program.

Let me talk first about the sequence of works performed. My piano teacher, Robert Goldsand, once told me that planning a one-composer program was easy if it were to feature works by Beethoven, Chopin, or Liszt because there is such natural variety found within each of these composers’ piano music. But building an entire program around Schubert had to be done especially carefully because the essence of Schubert was song. You needed a piano that would sing, and you had to choose the pieces, and the order of those pieces, with great care.

That certainly was done on Sunday. The program was musically and emotionally gripping from first note to last. There were two reasons for that. First and foremost, Kalichstein is a superlative musician. And in his opening remarks he said he wanted “to take you on a journey through the entire gamut of moods and emotions in Schubert’s music.” The marvelous sequence of pieces he put together did exactly that.  

The programming revealed a wonderfully creative and perceptive musical imagination. The 11 pieces on the first half, comprising some 45 minutes of music, were wonderfully varied yet provided an engaging and emotional sequence of stories and events.

Probably less apparent to the audience was the logical key sequence they formed. The entire first half was played without any break for applause, which sustained the sense of storytelling and held the audience in its grip. First there were five of the short Valses Nobles, D. 969.  Next, three of the 6 Moments Musicaux, D.780, which evidently were chosen to represent the emotional core of those six masterpieces. Next came the Scherzo in B-flat, D.593, which Kalichstein described as “like yodeling.” Then came the second of the Drei Klavierstücke, D.946, which he said was his favorite of the three. The first half of the concert ended with the well known Imprompu in E-flat major, the second of the Four Impromptus, D.899.

Too often, critics and listeners divide pianists into two categories, the pianists and the musicians — the former meaning, of course, “the virtuosos” and the second “the ones with less technique.” I’m exaggerating just a bit and it is in any case an unfair and unfortunate dichotomy. But it’s also one that has no meaning whatsoever when it comes to Joseph Kalichstein. He is a total musician and masterful pianist, meaning that he has it all. Yet so pure is the musical essence he distills in recital that the instrument becomes almost irrelevant. I suspect he could make profound music with a kazoo. And make no mistake, much of the music on this program was profound and came across with an emotional power that was unforgettable.

The Valses Nobles were played almost as one piece, leading to the second of the Musical Moments, a much more substantial and sublimely songful piece. The two shorter Musical Moments, the well known third one and powerful fifth one, each in F minor, provided a nice contrast. He characterized the B-flat Scherzo as very playful, with a singing Trio section. The second of the Drei Klavierstücke was the most substantial of the pieces on the first half. It alternated between the achingly beautiful opening tune in E-flat major and two disturbing, emotionally troubled contrasting sections. The E-flat Impromptu was characterized by swashes of color rather than individual triplets — an effect that brought Schubert’s remarkably colorful harmony into brilliant relief.

Unlike some of his younger colleagues, Kalichstein never makes a harsh sound. His tone throughout this concert was rich, dark and comforting. His sense of color, touch, balance, voicing and pedaling were magical and supported a sense of structure and flow that simply explained itself. At times he sounded like a great operatic singer, alternately soprano, mezzo, tenor, or baritone, accompanied by the color of the entire Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (as my wife described it).  I didn’t want the first half to end.

The second part of the program contained only one work, the great Sonata in A major, D.959, one of those miracles of Schubert’s last few months on this earth. As such, one can’t help but wonder if Schubert was already encountering a heavenly reality that he translated for us, at least partially. This is a work that is amenable to a variety of approaches — from the restrained and classical to the unrestrained, passionate and romantic. No matter the interpretive approach, the greatest difficulty is communicating the natural structural flow. Done in too strict a tempo it doesn’t flow at all. It takes years of experience to make this piece come alive. And Kalichstein certainly did that.

This was a masterful performance. Were all the notes and little details in place? No, but that was of no significance at all. Making clear the important points in the structure and flow of this massive and complex masterpiece is a rare thing. Getting to the heart of its spiritual essence is even less common. I was glad to be there today. I have rarely been so moved by this piece, and I have heard it done by several distinguished pianists.

The first movement Allegro, which he described as “the most Beethoven-ish” of the four, was pushed and pulled in an occasionally impetuous and agitated way that made the connection with Beethoven quite clear. It nonetheless highlighted and characterized the main ideas wonderfully. The pianist had reminded us at the beginning that Beethoven, who was Schubert’s idol, had died only a few months earlier and his influence is especially clear in the opening movement. Kalichstein also omitted the exposition repeat. The emotional center, which to me comes at the gentle and comforting end, was gauged perfectly. Kalichstein never rushes tempo, letting the music take its own natural and expressive flow.

The extraordinary slow movement, marked Andantino, with its terrifying and emotional outburst in the middle part, was utterly convincing. The quietly despairing outer sections framed it perfectly and emotionally. I was reminded that, like Mozart, Schubert is eternally beautiful. The third movement Scherzo, marked Allegro vivace was just as it should be, carefree and joyous — the essence of Schubert’s happiest moments. It was simply the joy of dance, and was just right.

The finale, a rondo marked Allegretto begins with a tune that can stay in the mind and memory forever. It is eternal, and seems to sum up Schubert’s life emotionally. The return to the opening motive from the first movement completes it all. Kalichstein’s traversal of this masterpiece was moving and brought a depth of experience and musical depth for which I for one am grateful. I dislike comparisons but have to say the only time I’ve heard something comparable in this piece was from Frank Glazer, on two different occasions. And for me, that’s high praise.

The entire experience was capped by a single short encore that summed it all up: Schubert’s famous Serenade in Liszt’s wonderful transcription. Just wonderful.