Arnaldo Cohen, piano: Works by Bach-Busoni, Brahms and Chopin, Playhouse, November 30, 2014.

We see many young pianists dazzle us with their supreme technique and control these days -- but often we are left unmoved.  This display seems merely learned and perfected, and only tangentially related to what the pianist really thinks or feels.  When we hear the great piano virtuosos of the past, it doesn’t seem like this; they may be extreme, inexact or even willful but we know that the white heat they generate is theirs from the inner reaches of their soul. That is why the experience is so compelling and memorable. This concert by Brazilian-born Arnaldo Cohen brought back some of these feelings to me.  Winner of the 1972 Busoni International Piano Competition, and currently full professor in the music school at Indiana University, Cohen is of course a mature artist with enviable keyboard control and weight, and his intense sense of musical purpose and colour simply forces the listener to jump on for a compelling ride whether they want to or not.  In his hands, there is no seemingly no break in concentration; we are suspended in the passion and emotional variety of his pianism with almost cinematic force. 

The opening Bach-Busoni Chaconne in D minor can be a real blockbuster – and it definitely was here.  Don’t look for any semblance of metrical presentation.  We were immediately placed into a consuming fantasia of rhythmic progression mixed with colorful rubato, musing and searching at one moment, purposive and fiery at the next, then almost finding an almost Debussy-like sensuality at points -- before the hammering chords eventually took us home. It was not the counterpoint of Bach that one noticed; it was the expressive imagination of Busoni.  The reading may have been individual but it flinched from absolutely nothing, so certain was its purpose.

The Brahms Handel Variations is in many ways a more classical work but one which has long held favour for artists from the southern Americas. Claudio Arrau, Jorge Bolet and Jorge Federico Osorio have already left us the most distinguished recordings.  Again, inflection and rubato were present right from the beginning, and Cohen progressed through the variations with natural passion and flexibility.   Rhapsodic flow and energy was seemingly everywhere, the pianist occasionally hinting at a grand manner and fully delighting in tossing off some of the virtuoso passages. Much of the keyboard work was luminous and an interesting sense of organic unity was created.  The execution of the final variations was particularly fine and, except for one slight hesitation, the closing fugue built inexorably, weaving powerful articulation with soft, liquid phrasing.

It is not that often that we see all four Chopin Scherzi played in a row and, while this was a galvanizing experience, it was probably difficult to appreciate all the individual joys of each of these compositions in this context, especially given Cohen’s degree of projection and intensity.  This was ‘big’ Chopin, sometimes on a Lisztian scale, robust, weighty, often operating at extremes, and certainly pushing forward much of the time. We nonetheless did get some moments of repose in the second Scherzo and elsewhere, but this was playing of great contrast.  It was only a moment or two before virtuoso flourish would spring up seemingly out of nowhere again. Towards the end of the second Scherzo, we noticed both the strong accelerando and the sense of grandeur.  Demonic energy in turn was memorably etched at the beginning of the third, with rich characterization throughout, and the final Scherzo was vivid and colourful.  Evidently, this was not Chopin playing of particular intimacy, sometimes a little headlong and impetuous, and not for the faint of heart – but certainly an overwhelming adventure in its own way.  The Scherzos can take this sort of treatment better than other Chopin.

It is of course possible to illuminate both the Brahms and Chopin pieces in ways that are quite unlike this, and I do like a number of these alternatives.  But what we got here was a real experience.  I can really think of few piano recitals that carried this degree of concentration and conviction through from beginning to end – and with such commanding clarity and tonal richness.  Was any of this overloaded or self-conscious?   Certainly, there was a strong virtuoso projection in much of the playing -- but the answer is No.  The playing was in no sense showy.  It was as if the pianist was so sure about what he wanted to say about each piece and how he actually felt about it inside, that he just gave us everything he had.  And that is exactly what reminds me of the distinguished piano virtuosos of the past.  The encore was the fetching Brazilian piece, “Odeon,” by Ernesto Nazareth.

© Geoffrey Newman 2014