One of the funniest videos on youtube is a 2016 audience recording of the beginning of pianist Eliane Rodrigues‘ performance of Chopin’s Polonaise Fantasie, Op. 61 at a concert in her hometown of Antwerp. It’s obvious in the first few seconds that something is wrong with the piano. How she deals with it is priceless. Youtube pageview counts are notoriously inflated, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if all six million hits on this video were real: it’s that good.
After watching her in that situation, her solo piano arrangement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, on her new album Aeternum – streaming at Spotify – comes as no surprise. It’s the kind of thing you play at a party after everybody’s had a few drinks. Don’t even start with the famous first movement: put the second on and see how many people get the joke. And it doesn’t even start with a joke: Rodrigues reinvents it as a High Romantic tour de force, drenched in as much angst as devious humor.
And it sounds nothing like the comparatively tame, stolidly marching Liszt transcription: this is pure fun. Rodrigues uses a ton of space to ramp up the suspense, holds onto pivotal moments for dear life, employs rubato constantly to underscore as much gothic grimness as sheer buffoonery. This isn’t just punk classical: there’s immense depth and feeling when she’s not going for broke with the jokes. One suspects the composer, a recidivist bon vivant, would have played it much the same way.
Rodrigues also tackles a half-dozen Bach pieces here. Her approach to the Prelude and Fugue in G major, BWV 541 is practically breathless, with a stunningly light touch in places, even more so as the famous fugue theme begins. But she doesn’t stay there long, raising the volume with a crushing precision. Her take of the equally iconic Fantaisie and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 is completely the opposite, riding the pedal for an approximation of organ resonance before backing away wistfully, syncopating while walking the bass hard, and conjuring up as much nocturnal glimmer as she can.
There are two other Bach pieces on the album. The Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 is another staple of the organ repertoire: her dusky introduction and angst-fueled insistence are spot-on, as is her steady but slashing, proto-Rachmaninovian interpretation of the fugue. And she teases out every bit of puckish humor, scampering phantasmagoria and grand guignol as anybody could want from the iconic Toccata and Fugue in D.
It’s obvious that Rodrigues really went under the lid with all of this. You may disagree with her dynamics but you can’t fault her for technical flaws or lack of chutzpah. Anyone who might think this music is stuffy (it’s actually anything but) has never heard Rodrigues play it.