Péter Tóth

By Scott MacClelland

FOR HIS CURRENT tour, pianist Péter Tóth chose a program more for pianists and piano students than music lovers. He performed it for the Distinguished Artists series in Santa Cruz on November 3, and at Hidden Valley in Carmel Valley on Monday night. Heard at the latter venue, it was easy to cheer on the 36-year-old Tóth for his display of fine pianism though the music he selected largely came with little substance.

As a musical form, variations generally makes for a hard sell, unless for the purpose of showcasing technical prowess. Handel’s Chaconne in G—variations over a repeating bass line—opened the concert’s first half. Beethoven’s early Variations on “God Save the King” closed it.

Liszt’s gaseously inflated Variations on a Motif by JS Bach began the second half. Its Bach-quote is a descending bass line, repeating like the Handel chaconne. Tóth’s virtuosity carried these pieces but, owing to their artistic limitations, with only momentary impact. Fans of pianistic virtuosity however rewarded them long and loudly.

At 23 minutes, the longest piece on the program, the early Sonata in D, K311, by Mozart sparkled as it should but is pale stuff compared with the late works where artistic depth—both compositional and interpretive—makes all the difference. (‘Late,’ if you believe death at age 35 qualifies.) Then followed Schubert’s Impromptu in F Minor from Op142, a minor masterpiece in A-B-A form and an exceptionally imaginative concentration of invention. It proved to be memorable; its tunes are still playing in my head as I write this. (Schubert didn’t get late; he died at 31.)

Bartók’s four movement Suite, Op 14, written in 1916, sounds folkloric but is all original. It predates the composer’s incorporation of rural modes and earthy rhythms—“peasant” music—that he and fellow composer Kodály had collected in Transylvanian and Carpathian villages. (It was those influences that once incorporated in his mature works established Bartók’s lasting reputation as a great 20th century original.) For the last movement, Sostenuto, Tóth produced a delicately poetic quietude.   

The other music lovers’ treat, and packed with virtuosity, was the perennial favorite, Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante, that ended the recital. Three curtain calls garnered an encore, a three-minute charm Tóth called Miniature Suite.