Jorge Luis Prats, piano: Works by Villa-Lobos, Albeniz, Chopin, Ravel and Cervantes, Playhouse, October 30, 2015.

Cuban-born Jorge Luis Prats fits with the grand tradition of Latin and South America piano virtuosos that has included over time the likes of Claudio Arrau, Martha Argerich, Jorge Bolet, and Nelson Friere.  He likely has as much strength and earthy passion in him as any of them. Prats won the prestigious Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Piano Competition in Paris in 1977, and quickly recorded his debut disc for Deutsche Grammophon.  However, his Cuban visa soon began to constrain his appearances in major musical centers in America and Europe, leaving him to perform for decades mainly in Eastern bloc countries. As political attitudes towards Cuba have softened in the last decade, a major turning point for the artist was his move to Miami.  This allowed him to perform regularly in the Miami International Piano Festival and also in the Concertgebouw Piano Masters series in Amsterdam.  The Managing Director of Decca Records happened to see his 2007 festival performance in Miami, and that was what ultimately led to the release of his inspired ‘Live in Zaragoza’ CD by Decca in 2012.

Unfortunately, the pianist’s current visit did not get off to a promising start.  It is not often that an artist mistakes the day he is playing but in fact Prats thought Saturday was the performance date when in fact it was Friday.  Recognizing this Friday afternoon, the pianist scrambled into ‘panic’ rehearsal mode and managed to finish his practicing only minutes before he was due on stage.  He did not look particularly comfortable when he entered – and I feared for the worst.  But, I shouldn’t have: only a few minutes into the Villa-Lobos, genuine magic started to build. One thing that was immediately evident was how so sure emotionally Prats was of the musical direction he wished to proceed, and that emotional transparency permeated the whole recital, even if there were still signs of hasty preparation.

I found the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 most rewarding.  Prats’ playing had a wonderful sense of line and musical space that allowed each note to mean something.  There was certainly rhythmic command and tonal weight on display, but it was the colour of the expression that left the greatest mark in this set of four pieces, especially some of the more tender, sensual and bittersweet yearnings. A lot of this was truly evocative. Perhaps it is exactly this quality that I would have liked to have seen more of in Albeniz’ Iberia. What was evident here was just how naturally Prats caught the rhythms of these quintessentially rhythmic pieces, and this alone puts him in company of De Larrocha and others.  I do think that Prats is inevitably tougher, more angular and less fluid than De Larrocha, more inclined to let rhythmic accents dominate the longer lyrical phrase.  However, as things moved on, the articulation did seem somewhat hastily pushed and occasionally unsettled, though its moments of volcanic thrust and wildness were exciting. Perhaps a greater attention paid to dynamics would have been beneficial: a lot of the presentation seemed on the loud side, needing more contrast and selective repose.  This was an experience, but I don’t think we really heard the finished product.

Cervantes’ Cuban Dances Suite was supposed to begin the second half of the concert but instead we moved directly to the three Chopin pieces: the Fantasie, the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise, and a Nocturne.  On the face of it, this was very big-boned, deliberate Chopin, having an almost Brahmsian weight and texture.  The closest modern reference would be Arrau.  However, what it seemingly lacked in elegance and sparkle, I thought it made up in rugged commitment and spirit.  I felt the emotions conveyed were particularly real and the Andante spianato was touching.  Again, I am not sure that execution was fully up to form, but this was still playing of character and power. 

After the concert, the President of the Vancouver Chopin Society – the concert’s sponsor – happened to ask me what I thought of his Chopin, and what score it might receive at this year’s Chopin competition in Warsaw.  He had just returned from the competition.  I essentially said that it was probably outside the boundaries that one would expect these days, and would likely get very extreme responses.  However, I suggested that we ask the pianist directly how he would compare his Chopin with that of today’s young specialists.  Prats said simply: ‘Suppose you wanted to eat a chicken.  Would you sit down with a knife and fork and cut small juicy slices of it, serving it up in a neat orderly fashion?  Where I come from, if you want to eat chicken you just pick up the whole chicken and eat it, letting its juices flow wherever.  That’s what I call eating chicken.”  And in many ways, that is what Prats’ Chopin is.

Prats has played Ravel splendidly right from his earliest days, and his La Valse was both commanding and delightful. It found such colour and sensuality, always cultivating a natural ease in the waltz progressions and, of course, ending cataclysmically. The performance brought the house down, and encores were loudly called for – but was this really the end of the concert?  Where were the Cuban Dances?  Prats came back on stage, sat down at the piano, but there was seemingly nothing there: he had not had time to think of an encore.  After scratching his head and pondering for what seemed an eternity, finally his hands settled on the keyboard and a few little tunes came out.  It turned out to be ‘master class’ time.  Prats returned to many of the items he had played, analyzed them, even showing us how Chopin was ‘obsessed’ with certain notes in his Preludes.  Then, he illustrated in detail how the piano version of La Valse was put together from the voices of the orchestral score.  Quite fascinating, and this went on for at least 15 minutes.  Then Prats scratched his head again and, after a few long moments, dance phrases suddenly sprung to life in his fingers. Yes, finally, it was the long-lost Cuban Dances, to be performed for another ten minutes in all their glory.  There was more full hearted applause, and the concert was finally over.  Patrons remarked that this was one of the best recitals they had seen.


© Geoffrey Newman 2015