A moment of New York musical history is preserved, in which Shehori pays homage to Vladimir Horowitz.

Shehori – The Celebrated New York Concerts, Vol. 9 = BEETHOVEN: 15 Variations and Fugue in E-flat Major, Op. 35 “Eroica”; LISZT: Impromptu in F-sharp Major; Au Bord d’une Source in A-flat Major; Canzone “Nessun maggior dolore” (after Rossini’s Otello); Funerailles; SCHUBERT: Sonata in A Major, D. 959; TCHAIKOVSKY (trans. Shehori): Melodie for Violin and Piano in E-flat Major, Op. 42, No. 3; MOSZKOWSKI: Etincelles, Op. 36, No. 6; CHOPIN: Mazurka in g minor, Op. 24, No. 1 – Mordecai Shehori, p. – Cembal d’amour CD 183 (2 CDs) 46:05, 48:27 (5/20/16) ****:

The latest installment of “The Celebrated New York Recitals” by Mordecai Shehori preserves a distinctive moment (19 May 1992) for him and us at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall: he pays tribute to his mentor Vladimir Horowitz, even as the great pianist’s widow sits near his keyboard. Later, Mrs. Horowitz would remark: “Mordecai, you are the only pianist that learned from my husband but you do not imitate him.”

Shehori opens with a Liszt group, a selection of four pieces that explore Liszt’s penchant for polar ecstasies of emotion. The Impromptu in F-sharp Major, S. 191, from Liszt’s Weimar period, exploits liquid runs and whirlwind trills, a combination of one of his noted water-pieces and the nocturnal Liebestraume. Shehori’s detached chords prove as vibrant as his smooth legato. Au Bord d’une Source (“Beside a spring) often received the attention of Horowitz. From Liszt’s First Year of Pilgrimage, the work shimmers in arpeggiated sixteenths, asking for the hands to cross while the music oscillates between high and low registers. That Shehori makes one unbroken singing line of this etude affirms his status – along with the likes of Horowitz. Cziffra, and Wild – as one of the great Liszt acolytes.

The succeeding two Liszt works descend, like Dante, into the depths. The Canzone: “Nessun maggior dolore” derives from Rossini’s opera Otello, Act III. In context, the music is a gondolier’s song, but Liszt applies bass harmonies and tremolos that turn the waters into the Acheron. Mid-way, the music lightens and tries to find light amidst the darkness. Shehori leaves us surrounded by a gloom that only increases with his absolutely blistering realization of Liszt’s Funerailles, the seventh of the Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, that celebrates the catastrophic events of the 1849 Hungarian Revolution, crushed by the Habsburgs. Coincidently, Horowitz championed this declamatory and emotionally poignant work, which was written the same year Chopin died. In four sections, the third imitates and surpasses Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise for galloping octaves and sheer emotional violence. That Shehori’s keyboard must have been composed of asbestos becomes an understatement!

The first half of the concert concludes with Beethoven’s Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E-flat Major, his “Eroica” Variations. That this little contredanse tune held so much promise for Beethoven remains one of the miracles of music. Its “Promethean” possibilities – the tune appears in his ballet, Op. 43, along with its eternal appearance in Symphony No. 3 – emerge in the course of inventive variations of basically good humor, until the penultimate Variation 14, which reveals a profound, inward melancholy. Shehori adds to the innate, creative panoply by coloring each of his repeats distinctively, either by touch or by added fioritura. As Shehori explains, “I see each repeat not as a mechanical repetition, but as an opportunity to cooperate in the invention.” The task lies in finding a sense of continuity in the midst of plastic variety. After the sadness of Variation 14, the Fugue, perhaps provides the cosmic logic and Baroque passion that serves as a spiritual balm. Variation 15 seems to enjoy a freer form. Shehori then muses that the Fugue “is the symbol of the logic and power of Nature.”

Schubert’s 1828 A Major Sonata has often been cited as a premonition of the composer’s sense of early demise, given its creation – along with sonatas in C Minor and B-flat Major – in an astonishing short space of time. Horowitz himself never recorded this work, but Shehori need not look to heroic models: he has his own ideas. Taking the composer at his word, the first movement proceeds Allegro, without hyperbolic luftpausen and inflated drama. The opening fanfare, the succeeding triplets, and the various chromatic runs, all unfold with a subdued intimacy, a grand proportion that suggests more of Artur Rubinstein’s ability to have music “play itself,” without the interference of exaggerated personality. The true intimacy belongs to the Andantino, which even for Schubert marks a decisive pinnacle of expression. Here, Shehori does apply those personal tugs and stretches that unveil a rarified vision of personal struggle, breaking out polyphonically into a potent maelstrom before returning to a grieved version of the opening statement.

The playful Scherzo: Allegro vivace Shehori molds into a gentle laendler of mercurial temperament. Often, the music resembles one of the Moments musicaux. Yet, in the midst of its life-affirming energy, the fateful quarter notes from the opening octave of the first movement appear, for “in the midst of life we are In death.” The last movement, Rondo – Allegretto, lets Schubert combine various forms, rondo, sonata-form, and a series of variants. The theme Schubert borrows from his own 1817 Sonata, D. 537. The melodic and rhythmic flow of this movement urges it forward in alternately lyrical and dramatic modes, the right hand’s often extending chains of liquid runs. Mid-way, Schubert erupts into gestures not far from his own idol, Beethoven, given the intensity of the various stretti. The gradations of color find exquisite control in Shehori’s reading, as we enter the ritornello once more for its nostalgia and tender humanity. Prior to the decisive coda, Schubert appears to stutter, to stammer with the pained emotion that seeks triumph even in the coils of mortality.
For his first encore, Shehori performs his own arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s 1878 Melodie (“chant sans paroles”) in E-flat, the third of a triptych entitled Souvenir d’un lieu cher, “remembrance of a cherished place,” composed as supplements or addenda to the Violin Concerto, in progress. Shehori displays a poised vocal line, a plangent tune that could easily have provided one of the composers “months” from Op. 37. The progressive trills more than suggest bird calls, intoned while the narrator imbibes a pastoral scene.

The successive, “characteristic piece” Etincelles of Moritz Moszkowski certainly bows to Horowitz, this signature piece (in B-flat Major) that exploits staccato passagework and glistening scales. The explosive audience invokes one last encore, Chopin’s Mazurka in g minor, the first of four of Op. 24, this – a kujawiak dance – based on a folk tune about Johnny not ploughing the farmland. Reflective and melancholy, the piece allows Shehori to shade his rubato, even as the music proceeds into the major mode of G and then into E-flat momentarily, before its wistful droop into sadness.

—Gary Lemco