Last March the Faculty Artists Series recital by pianist Mack McCray at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music provided an intriguing juxtaposition of music from the end of the eighteenth century with music from the very beginning of the twentieth. Today he revisited that juxtaposition as the day’s Piano Month performer in the Noontime Concerts™ (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) recital series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. Because today’s event is supposed to be limited to about 45 minutes, the original program was somewhat abbreviated; but the impact of the juxtaposition was just as strong.
This was probably due, in part, to the fact that the eighteenth-century portion of the program was represented entirely by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, consisting of three pieces composed within a span of five years in Vienna. Yet, for such “temporal intimacy,” the pieces could not have been more different, at least as interpreted by McCray. The K. 398 set of six variations on Giovanni Paisiello’s aria “Salve, tu Domine,” from his opera I filosofi immaginari (the imaginary philosopher), could not have been more prankish. The original aria was apparently sung in incomprehensible Latin and confounded by an unbalanced phrase structure that would have sent Sixtus Beckmesser marking his slate like crazy. For his part, Mozart clearly loved this aria for its deliberately pretentious ineptitude and honored it with what is probably his wildest set of variations.
This was followed by the K. 485 rondo in D major, which is not quite as raucous as the variations but still has a generous share of play about it. This is one of those pieces in which Mozart takes one of the most familiar of musical structures and proceeds to knock it off kilter with an abundance of “surprise” events in which he makes it clear that he knows what the listener is expecting and is determined not to deliver it. As with the variations, McCray was clearly comfortable with letting Mozart have the last word in poking fun at his audience.
That opposition of expectation then took a more serious turn with the K. 540 adagio in B minor. This piece demonstrated how easy it was for Mozart to shift from prankish to disquieting. Adagio movements can assume a greater variety of structural forms than that of the traditional sonata allegro, but in K. 540 Mozart always seems to be on the brink of abandoning all previous possibilities. The music thus moves forward with an almost eerie hesitancy, as if it is taking steps in total darkness without knowing which ones will land on solid ground. Considering that this short movement is generally classified as “abstract,” it is as dramatic as anything he wrote for any of his operas, if not a bit more so.
McCray then remained in the key of B minor and shifted to Alexander Scriabin’s Opus 28 fantasy. This piece is thickly textured with elaborate embellishments, through which, in its own way, it pursues the sorts of ambiguities that haunt K. 540. Furthermore, while it practically obsesses over a single motif, it shares with K. 540 that same uncertainty of an overall architectural foundation.
Having ushered us into the domain of lavish embellishment, McCray then concluded his recital with Mily Balakirev’s fantasy on themes from the opera A Life for the Tsar by Mikhail Glinka. While this fantasy was composed on the brink of the twentieth century (in 1899), it hearkens back to Franz Liszt’s shamelessly virtuosic paraphrases on both Italian and Wagnerian operas. Still, there was something refreshing in its flamboyance as a relief from all of those spooky B minor effects evoked by both Mozart and Scriabin.
McCray then concluded his recital with an encore that involved a meeting between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. This was Alexander Siloti’s B minor prelude, which is a rather free arrangement of the BWV 855a version of the E minor prelude from the first volume of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Thus, after “taking a break” with Balakirev, McCray returned to B minor, this time with a sense of the dramatic that Bach had probably never intended but also with a tenderness that rose above the dark clouds of K. 540 and Scriabin’s fantasy.