Oppens offers perfect night of Beethoven and piano

November 22, 1994|By David Donovan | David Donovan,Special to The Sun

Ursula Oppens' piano recital at Shriver Hall Saturday night was a wonderful combination of illuminating performances. She played a Beethoven sonata from his middle and late periods, and four gems by living Americans.

Her most brilliant stroke may have been eliminating the Beethoven "Opus 14, No. 1 Sonata" from the program. This made the evening perfectly balanced and avoided a marathon recital.

In the first work, the "Sonata in F major, Opus 54," Oppens gave the music a wonderful unification of simplicity and complexity. The Bach-like second movement had a sublime sense of inevitability that Beethoven required. She displayed plenty of power, but the tone was always beautiful.

Next came four short works by American composers. Elliot Carter's "90+" was a flashy fireworks display that surprised the listener almost every second.

Tobias Picker's "Old and Lost Rivers" had the kind of openness one associates with Copland, yet it was not as sentimental. It had a stark grandeur and a timeless peacefulness.

"Or like a . . . an engine" by Joan Tower was a high-speed ride in a fast car that zipped around sharp curves near the edge of a cliff and almost went over the cliff (but didn't). The violent ostinati were relentless but always musical.

"Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues" by Frederic Rzewski displayed Ms. Oppens vocal talents as well as her pianistic mastery. This was a jazzy, bluesy ride through virtuosic fantasies that had a free improvisatory spirit. This work and its three predecessors were so clearly presented that experiencing this music was a great journey of discovery. The world needs more artists who can make new music immediately accessible.

The evening ended with a hair-raising performance of the "Hammerklavier" sonata of Ludwig van Beethoven. Ms. Oppens even made this music sound fresh and new. During this and the earlier Beethoven sonata on the program, one was kept aware of the orchestral quality of this great music. The fugal finale was handled with passion and the perfect sense of structure. Beethoven played like this is rare, but Shriver Hall has already had two great examples -- the Tokyo Quartet and now Ursula Oppens -- only two concerts into their 1994-95 season.

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