Pratt's piano performance slow going

Music review

January 16, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Awadagin Pratt cuts a glamorous figure at the keyboard. His unconventional concert garb -- colorful, open-necked shirts and casual trousers -- are stylish enough to grace the cover of GQ. Without a shirt, his athletic body could land him on the cover of Men's Health and Fitness. To put it simply, he's drop-dead beautiful. His piano-playing is another matter.

Pratt, who performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major last night with the Baltimore Symphony, idolizes the playing of the late Glenn Gould. It is perhaps for that reason that -- like Gould -- he seats himself at the keyboard only 21 inches above the floor. This was fine -- at least in the early years -- for Gould, who played at something like the speed of light and wanted a highly articulated piano sound that resembled the sonority of a harpsichord. But what worked for Gould, who was a genius, does not work for Pratt, who isn't.

Because the weight of his playing comes almost entirely from his arms, mostly from the elbows down, Pratt's piano sound is shallow and brittle and -- at high dynamic levels -- even ugly. He is still a young man. But if Gould's career serves as example, Pratt can look forward to physical problems that may make playing even more difficult when he is 40 than it is now.

The Peabody-trained pianist, who won the Naumburg International Piano Competition in 1992 and was awarded an Avery Fisher Fisher Career Grant two years later, is a sincere artist who is unafraid of taking chances. But his ideas about Beethoven's C Major concerto were, to say the least, peculiar. Even though he played the shorter and easier of the composer's first-movement cadenzas, his performance, which lasted more than 38 minutes, was one of the slowest I've ever heard. (Using this cadenza, most pianists take 34 minutes or less.) The slow tempo did permit Pratt to explore some interesting byways. There was a clarity of articulation that made it possible to hear things I had never heard before.

But I also had to wonder how many of them the composer intended. When Pratt, for example, brought out some new (to me, anyway) voices in the left hand during the first-movement cadenza, it made his interpretation sound like a parody. Things did not get much better in the succeeding movements. The second lumbered and the third sounded labored. The orchestra and guest conductor Libor Pesek coped as well as they could.

The concert concluded with a warm, big-hearted account of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G Major.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. today and at 3 p.m. tomorrow.

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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