HAYDN: Piano Sonata No. 62 in E-flat Major; BEETHOVEN: 11 Bagatelles, Op. 119; SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major, D. 960 – Gilbert Kalish, piano – Bridge 9428, 76:18 [Distr. by Albany] (5/1/14)****:

Gilbert Kalish (b. 1936) returns to us (rec. 19 September 2013) in the guise of keyboard soloist, after having had for decades enjoyed his repute as a gifted accompanist and collaborator with such luminaries as Jan DeGaetani, Dawn Upshaw, Joel Krosnick, and Timothy Eddy. Mr. Kalish recorded these particular works with his late wife Diane in mind, to whom he dedicates this recital.

Kalish opens with a sensitively etched reading of the 1795 Haydn Sonata No. 62 in E-flat Major, whose galant poise and “sensitive” style – from C.P. E. Bach – Kalish renders with a transparent finesse that often allows the muscular groups to indicate a course a certain Beethoven would adopt. The harmonic shift just prior to the first movement coda tells us much about the future history of music.  Much of the piece’s Italianate lyricism can be attributed to the influence of Muzio Clementi, but the chromatic line of the E Major Adagio and its florid progressions attest to an independent explorer in Haydn. The dotted motifs resonate in the manner of a highly intricate French Overture, but the modulations and passing dissonances prove as daring as anything in late Mozart or early Beethoven. For his Presto finale, Haydn exploits another staccato series of riffs on G, then he accelerates with runs and dynamic shifts that well display the range of Kalish’s Steinway. The hybrid sonata-rondo form bristles with light, jubilant energy, often in “symphonic” textures. The rapid syncopations enjoy Kalish’s own pointed accents, lithe and deliciously mercurial, a true appetizer to the Classical-Romantic feast that still awaits us.

Recently, Richard Goode performed excerpts from the 1823 Kleinigkeiten (insignificant trifles) for his Bing Hall recital at Stanford; Artur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin (Goode’s teacher) had also been advocates of these kernels of rhythmic and harmonically daring compressions of potential energy. The cycle begins and ends in B-flat Major, pieces that play like German dances or minuets but occasionally alter the metric pulse in an attempt to mimic waltzes or mazurkas. The audacious No. 6 in G proffers sixth chords that convince us we are hearing Rachmaninov. Kalish plays the incredibly terse, syncopated Allegramente No. 10 in a more subsued manner than did Serkin. Kalish gives many of these an arioso affect, tiny songs – particularly those in C Major –  that may have served as studies for the contemporaneous Diabelli Variations.  The last receives a hint of romantic, wistful farewell, more in the manner of Schumann than of Schubert, Hummel, or even Chopin, to whom several seemed to allude or suggest.

The 1828 Schubert B-flat Sonata often promotes realizations of “heavenly length” that last well into fifty minutes. Kalish opts to omit the first movement (Molto moderato) repeat and concentrate rather on the music’s innate lyricism, as it is periodically interrupted by a dark trill of ominous intent. Having established a basic pulse for this opening movement, Kalish reads the evolution of three themes without undue mannerism, and even his fortes remain quietly subdued. The occasional pearly play of his arpeggios adds a decisive poetry to the progression. The development takes us into F-sharp Minor for the secondary subject, while (the relative) D Minor holds compelling sway prior to the recapitulation.  Kalish sojourns into Schubert’s byways with an intimate discretion marked by only an occasionally pained outburst; and much like Artur Rubinstein, Kalish allows the music to “play itself.”

The amazing, lachrymose second movement, Andante sostenuto in C-sharp Minor, derives its melodic impetus from thoughts in movement one. Its halting, dance-like opening gesture eventually expands into a nocturne of haunted beauty. The passing parade of harmony and textural colors never fails to mesmerize: the accompanying figure alone spans four octaves, and the central section in A Major proffers more consolation, a valediction forbidding mourning. Kalish pours some darkness into the song, but an illumination occurs when the da capo returns (whisperingly) in C Major and onto E Major. By the time the coda occurs in a transfigured C-sharp Major, Kalish has transformed this subjective orison (and its “fateful” bass motif) into his own personal prayer.

Lightness of touch and precision of digital acumen mark the Allegro vivace con delicatezza third movement, Kalish’s version of a fragile playfulness. Alfred Brendel used to quip the Viennese maxim: “Life is hopeless but not serious.” The highly syncopated trio in B-flat Minor conveys an ironist’s trepidation, Hamlet’s taunting his own father’s ghost as “old mole.” Kalish’s extraordinary sleight-of-hand never falters in this streamlined vision.  Apollo rather than Dionysos rules the optimistic Allegro ma non troppo finale, the G’s initiating a tune reminiscent of Beethoven but whose dancing predilections instill in us that disturbing paradox we hear more explicitly in Mahler: “Dunkel ist das leben, ist der tod.” Rarely has this bit of Silenus’ wisdom been uttered with more compassion than in Kalish’s Schubert.

—Gary Lemco