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Natalya Lundtvedt returns to Noontime Concerts™ to honor Helen von Ammon

Poster design for today's concert
Poster design for today's concert
courtesy of Noontime Concerts™

Belarusian pianist Natalya Lundtvedt returned to the Noontime Concerts™ series (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral today. By my records her last appearance was in 2012 when she participated in the annual Russian Music Festival held in October. While Belarus is not strictly Russian, she dutifully prepared a program of the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Sergei Prokofiev.

This time she appeared as the featured recitalist for the Helen von Ammon Memorial Concert, the annual event that launches Piano Month at Noontime Concerts™ every August. Von Ammon was a major supporter to burgeoning musical talent. Thus, for the occasion, Lundtvedt prepared a program of the music of composers intimately associated with the piano: Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and Claude Debussy. While she had found ways in which to be consistently expressive with the Russian composers she had presented, today’s composers seemed to present more of a challenge.

Unfortunately, like her Georgian colleague Khatia Buniatishvili, she seemed to respond to that challenge with an almost obsessive focus on technical detail that excluded all other priorities. Indeed, like Buniatishvili, Lundtvedt often created the impression that her primary goal was to fire off the maximum number of notes per minute. To be fair, however, the accuracy of her rapidity tended to be more reliable than the “spray and pray” approach that Buniatishvili brought to her recital debut here this past April.

Fortunately, the first two movements of Lundtvedt’s Schubert sonata selection (D. 664 in A major) provided the most consistent example of sensitivity having less to do with note density and more to do with how those notes were shaped into phrases. She even seemed to recognize just the right amount of time to pause between the first and second movements, keeping it short enough to let the listener recognize that the motif that begins the second movement is the same one that closed the first. Unfortunately, once she embarked on the Allegro of the final movement, she seemed to think that Vivace was more what Schubert had in mind, drowning the attentive ear in a flood of notes from which little sense of form could be extracted.

The other selection in which form did seem to matter was her first Debussy offering. This was the 1890 “Valse romantiques.” By way of perspective, 1890 was also the year in which Debussy began his Suite bergamasque. Debussy did not finish that suite until 1905, so we may not be certain which of those movements were composed when. However, while the title is of limited familiarity, everyone knows the name of the third movement: “Clair de lune.” There is a bit of that familiar rhetoric in this waltz, which, in itself, is rather fascinating, simply because Debussy tended to avoid anything as traditional as waltz form. Fortunately, Lundtvedt managed to capture the dual spirits of both waltz and Debussy to a rather pleasing effect.

Had she brought similar understanding to the two preludes she selected, “Minstrels” and “Feux d’artifice,” her approach to Debussy would have been memorable in every positive sense of that word. Similarly, she seemed to approach her opening selection, Beethoven’s WoO 80 set of 32 variations in C minor, as little more than a technical exercise, apparently disregarding the possibility that there was an overall architecture to all of those variations.

She then concluded her recital with an encore that was also an encore of one of her teachers, Mack McCray. She performed Alexander Siloti’s B minor prelude, which takes the BWV 855a version of the E minor prelude from the first volume of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier and weaves a few additional threads into Bach’s contrapuntal texture. Again, this performance was all technique with little attention to Siloti’s imaginative approach to the interplay of decidedly distinctive voices.