On one hand, it’s risky to call a classical pianist an individualist. In some circles, that might imply that the artist takes liberties which could range from debatable, to suspect, to completely unwanted. On the other hand, pianist Alexandra Joan has such fearsome technique that she’s able to interpret whatever emotion she can evince from the material in front of her. And when that’s unexpected, as it often is, it’s a revelation. Classical musicians are expected from their earliest days at conservatory to be all things to all people and all music, and Joan’s performances in the recent past have reflected those demands. With that in mind, there’s no question that she likes the Romantics, yet she’s also a great advocate for new music and especially the protean and colorful Mohammed Fairouz. And she likes a challenge, which is exactly what she’ll tackle this Friday, December 11 at 8 PM at Bargemusic where she’ll contend with a program including works by Bach, Arvo Part, Elliott Carter, Kaija Saariaho and Schumann’s famously difficult Etudes Symphoniques. Cover is $35/$30 srs/$15 stud., and early arrival is advised; Joan is popular.
Her most recent solo album is titled Dances and Songs. Interestingly, the most striking piece on it isn’t the physically taxing Liszt works, or the richly enigmatic Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales; it’s Bach’s English Suite No. 3 in G Minor. She plays it as if she was playing a harpsichord, giving full weight to the ornamentation and grace notes, proportionate to the rest of the score rather than lettting them just flit off the page. It’s a neat trick, and one that requires vastly more lightness of touch and completely different technique than if she was playing an actual harpsichord. And then, she finds the one part of the suite where she can make the greatest contrast with what, up to then, has been just short of lickety-split, and the effect is explosive. At that point, she hits a dirge tempo, so slow that it seems that the rhythm has fallen conpletely out. Essentially, she looked for the one place where she could wring every ounce of contrast (and raw, unvarnished angst) out of it, and pulled it off.
The album opens with a precise, emphatic take of Valse-Caprice No. 6 from Liszt’s Soirees de Vienne; she’ll return to waltzing Liszt at the end of the program to bring the album full circle. As the Ravel picks up steam from a stately tempo, Joan lets the distant gleam shine through, seemingly allowing the cascades to tumble from her hands rather than evoking a climb in one direction or another. It seems effortless even though it’s not.
After the intensity of the Bach, Liszt’s take of the Spinning Chorus from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman offers a dynamically shifting emotional respite. However, Joan’s muted approach at the end sets up another far more moody performance, Lizst’s arrangement of Schubert’s Der Doppelganger. Such segues are typical in her repertoire: she can’t resist making a connection where she can find one. The album isn’t up at any of the usual streaming spots, although Joan’s performances are well represented on youtube and at Instantencore.