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Pianist Steven Lin segues from Mozart to Liszt

Franz Liszt playing the piano at a salon of distinguished listeners
Franz Liszt playing the piano at a salon of distinguished listeners
artist unknown, from Wikiemedia Commons (public domain, with a key identifying all of the listeners)

Today’s Noontime Concerts™ (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) recitalist at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral was the young pianist Steven Lin. Lin is from Southern California and earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at The Juilliard School. By his own account, however, this performance was his Bay Area debut.

The bulk of his concert involved a potentially interesting piece of programming. He chose to play Franz Liszt’s “Réminiscences de Don Juan,” one of that composer’s most sophisticated exercises in fantasia based on the paraphrasing of the music Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had composed for his K. 527 opera Don Giovanni. However, to establish the “Mozart spirit,” Lin decided to precede this Liszt selection with Mozart’s K. 485 rondo in D major, which happened to be composed in 1786, the year before Don Giovanni was first performed. The brightly lit brevity of K. 485 differs as much from the darkness that pervades the opera (in major key as well as in minor) as Mozart’s economy as a composer differs from Liszt’s exorbitant approach to elaboration. Nevertheless, Lin told the audience to hold applause after K. 485 to allow for a smooth transition into Liszt’s fantasia.

This might have worked had he brought a more solid understanding of both compositions to this performance. While Lin clearly appreciated the high spirits of K. 485, he tended to drown them by trying to play as many notes as possible with the dampers raised, thus turning Mozart’s pristine elegance into little more than an athletic blur of notes. It was almost as if he wanted to prepare listeners for the full-throttle virtuosity that Liszt had packed into his Don Giovanni fantasia.

Unfortunately, Lin never seemed to appreciate that there was more to that fantasia than virtuosity. Indeed, while so much of Liszt can strike even the most sympathetic listener as blatantly over-the-top, those who really know their Liszt also know that just about anything he wrote that involved repurposing vocal music was always built on a solid understanding of not only what the vocal line did but how it could do it expressively. In that respect the Don Giovanni fantasia sees him at the top of his game, because, in this case, he goes beyond the vocal lines to the extent that every note of the fantasia can be traced back to the score for K. 527. The path is not always a direct one. Sometimes it goes through Mozart’s embellishments, sometimes it goes through Liszt’s embellishments, and sometimes it even goes through the set of variations that Frédéric Chopin wrote for this opera’s most famous duet, “Là ci darem la mano,” which also gets a round of variations in Liszt’s fantasia.

It would be difficult to believe that Lin could have gone through two degrees at Juilliard without acquiring a thorough knowledge of K. 527. However, it would appear that any connection between what Liszt composed and what inspired him never seemed to signify in Lin’s interpretation. The result thus quickly devolved into little more than a bombast so disoriented that Liszt himself could well have cringed when listening to it.

Once again all that seemed to matter was how many notes could be crammed into the duration of the composition. Sadly, this also significantly disrupted the opening selection, the third of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 31 sonatas. Composed in the key of E-flat major, this sonata is distinguished for having both a scherzo and a menuetto as its middle movements, with the Moderato e grazioso tempo of the Menuetto establishing it as the “slow” movement. It is also one of Beethoven’s wittiest sonatas with each movement establishing its own grounds for eliciting smiling nods from the attentive listener.

Alas, no such nods emerged in response to Lin’s performance. The note density was as thick as ever; and, in this case, it led to things getting unpleasantly out of hand. It is one thing to be able to sprint through a long run as if it were a hundred-yard dash; but it is quite another to lose the basic pulse in the middle of that sprint. That is when musicality is abandoned in the face of athleticism.

Lin thus came to the plate three times, and each swing resulted in a strike. Rather than accepting being called out, however, he came back for an encore. This was Chopin’s Opus 66 in C-sharp minor, which the composer called “Fantasie-Impromptu.” This was again performed with rapid-fire delivery, capturing neither the ternary form of the impromptu (which was there in the score) or the improvisatory rhetoric of a fantasia.

Lin’s biographical statement indicated that he has had a reasonable amount of success on the competition circuit, which may lead some of us (among those who have not already done so) to wonder whether or not there are some fundamental flaws in how these competitions are conducted.

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