A Fearless, Passionate, Revelatory Solo Performance by Pianist Remi Geniet
Playing earlier today at the Morgan Library, pianist Remi Geniet found striking common ground in a Bach chaconne, a Beethoven sonata and a twisted trio of pieces from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. But Geniet’s agenda, on a program staged by Young Concert Artists, seemed to be a lot more ambitious than merely assembling context to highlight how amazingly modern Bach’s harmonies could be. This show was all about contrasts… and conversations. Not simply one hand answering the other, but an intimately intense study in how composers alternate voices and develop dialogues – or, in the case of Prokofiev, eventually let a series of distinct and downright strange personalities into the picture.
Geniet brought all that into in hi-res focus: it was like getting a close-up of Beethoven’s eyes. Or Bach’s, or Ferrucio Busoni’s, which were responsible for the 1893 Bach transcription that Geniet played first. Dynamic shifts from a careful stroll to several crescendos of tumbling cascades, where the pianist threw caution to the wind and turned the afterburners on, were razor-sharp. The effect was the same with the conspiratorial whispers that led up to the stampede at the very end. Other pianists have probably played cleaner versions of this arrangement, but it’s hard to imagine one with more color and passion than this one.
The melodic development and tangents of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A Flat Major, Op. 110 are more expansive, but Geniet’s approach was the same. The energetic twinkle that the composer works up in the first movement turned out to be more meteor shower than starry night. Likewise, the sense of loss and abandonment in Geniet’s austere, muted phrasing as the second movement slowly built steam was absolutely harrowing. And the sense of questioning in the gritty waltz after was no less uncompromising. The pianist’s relentless lefthand drive made a welcome change from the innumerable safe, cookie-cutter performances of this piece.
Closing with the Russian Dance and scenes from both Petrouchka’s cell and the shrovetide fair – a solo piano arrangement so difficult that the composer himself couldn’t play it – was the icing on this Halloween cake. As he did with the two previous pieces, Geniet didn’t settle for the kind of icepick staccato that would have enabled a smoother ride through this gleefully macabre ballet: he savaged the chromatics, and eerie close harmonies to let them resonate, even if that translated only in split seconds. In the same vein, that long vamp in Petrouchka’s cell, with spectres flickering and flitting overhead, became all the more menacingly hypnotic.
Stravinsky has great fun playing ever-increasingly sadistic puppeteer with these themes, and Geniet reveled in yanking an ever-increasing cast of personalities up, and down, and sideways, mercilessly. After all the dichotomies of the rest of the program – caution versus passion, despondency versus guarded hope – it was a chance to completely go for broke. The audience gave him a series of standing ovations for it.
Geniet’s next performance is on March 2 at 8 PM at Powell Hall in St. Louis with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, playing Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on a bill also including works by Schumann and Semetana; tix are selling out and it doesn’t look like anything more affordable than $33 seats are still left. And Young Concert Artists’ popular series of performances by a global cast of up-and-coming talent continues this Feb 28 at 8 PM at Merkin Concert Hall with bassist Xavier Foley playing solo works by Bach, Sperger and Franck plus his own compositions; you can get in for as little as $10.