“Just about every piece of music that we can play is a song,” pianist Alexandra Joan nonchalantly told the audience at her luminous performance Thursday night at Bargemusic. That pretty much explains everything you need to know about her. Matter-of-factly and meticulously, she built a dynamically rich program with lyrical, cantabile, highly individualistic interpretations of a diverse program. from Bach to early Modernism, most of the works taken from her new album Dances and Songs.
She explained to the crowd that while not everything on the album is a dance per se, the material on it shares a kinetic character. She began the evening with a suite of Chopin mazurkas that aren’t on the album, but they turned out to make an apt opening salvo, Joan giving the audience a sort of guided tour via ample but judicious amounts of rubato, as if to say, “Watch this, here comes a really good one!”
Her take of Bach’s English Suite in G Minor, BWV 808 was especially gripping, not only because it’s an interesting piece of music, but because of how she accented the work’s rigorous and challenging ornamentation, awash in grace notes and trills. That made Bach’s tight rhythm all the more of a suspenseful contrast – and the plaintiveness of the second movement all the more affecting. Likewise, the high point of the night was Liszt’s solo piano arrangement from Schubert’s Der Doppelganger, vividly giving voice to a guy who can’t figure out if he’s himself or someone else and is completely lost as a result.
The program lightened from there, but just a little, with an edgy, acerbic run through Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, drawing a straight line back to the Schubert suite that inspired them even if the tonalities were from a completely different idiom (and radical enough in Ravel’s day to get him slammed by the critics). Joan ended the night on a celebratory note with the “champagne bubbles” of a couple of lighthearted if cruelly challenging Liszt pieces, the Valse Impromptu and then his whirling arrangement of the Spinning Chorus from Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Which in turn made her careful, plaintive Debussy encore all the more astringently gripping. Joan is also an impresario, so the idea of going from Bach to Romantic to Modern and linking it all together is less unlikely (and less ostentatious) for her than it would be for a lot of other pianists. She’s appearing next with the fantastic Grneta Ensemble performing Gerald Cohen’s Sea of Reeds at le Poisson Rouge on Nov 11 at 6 PM; advance tix are $15 and very highly recommended.