Rare intelligence shows in Bates' Chopin playing

November 29, 1990|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The Sonata No. 3 in B Minor is the most difficult of Chopin's large-scale works to bring off. No Romantic composer felt comfortable with classical form -- Chopin's B-flat Minor Sonata is really a titanic tone poem -- and the Sonata in B Minor has brought many pianists to grief. That Leon Bates performed it so successfully last night in Murphy Auditorium at Morgan State University was a tribute to musical intelligence of a very high order.

Bates made the work's problems of tempo and phrasing seem relatively simple. The work's opening, which gives most pianists nightmares, was played with certainty and majesty. In the rest of the movement, the pianist made one aware -- as most pianists do not -- that in his contrapuntal development of his themes, Chopin is the heir to the fugal experiments of the late Beethoven sonatas. What was perhaps even more impressive was the way the pianist handled the slow third movement -- with its langorous anticipations of Debussy -- and the brilliant final movement.

Bates took a courageous approach to the finale. The movement is marked presto non tanto, but most pianists ignore the cautionary non tanto, preferring to bring this problematic work to an end as brilliantly as possible. By adopting a somewhat slower tempo than usual, Bates made the work sound heroic and grand and thus connected it to the majesty of the first movement. Bates' fingers did not always obey him perfectly and there was some fumbling. But one does not mind a few missed notes when one hears such expressive playing.

Earlier in the program, Bates played the same composer's A-flat Ballade with beauty of tone and delicacy of phrasing. He brought out some interesting inner voices in a manner that recalled that of Claudio Arrau in this music. But Bates has an identification with the Chopin style that made his liberties sound a thousand times more idiomatic than Arrau's.

When Bates first appeared on the scene more than a dozen years ago, he showed a real aptitude for the music of Scriabin, and he still performs his music with rare effectiveness. Four of the composer's etudes were beautifully shaped by the pianist, and he caught the erotic curve into heartbreak of the great C-sharp Minor etude (opus 42, No. 5) just about perfectly.

The recital ended with Hale Smith's "Faces of Jazz" and George Walker's Sonata No. 1, which an early deadline prevented this listener from hearing.

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