Pianist Jura Margulis


By Scott MacClelland

JURA MARGULIS has been playing annual piano recitals at Hidden Valley off and on for about 15 years. To that end, and thanks to a warm relationship with Hidden Valley’s Peter Meckel, Margulis brings with him an international career as a concert artist, well-known to major symphony orchestras and festivals worldwide. Moreover, he is a sought-after competition judge and administrator.

For his Hidden Valley concert last week, he served up six sonatas—originally for harpsichord—by Domenico Scarlatti, an atonal Poeme of 1914 by Alexander Scriabin and the sprawling early Sonata in F Minor of 1852-3 by Johannes Brahms. Margulis spoke eloquently about these works before starting to play them.

In considering the Baroque giants, JS Bach and George F Handel, one should recognize that Scarlatti, their exact contemporary, and then working in Spain, was at the forefront of the coming Classical style. There are similarities, especially between Scarlatti and the keyboard and instrumental music of Handel, yet Scarlatti seems to have a clearer idea of what was on the horizon. (He also had contemporaries in Spain, like Antonio Soler, who likewise fell in line.)

Like Handel, Scarlatti’s sonatas are all in binary form (AABB) and rooted in dance. The first of them, in F Minor, at nine minutes the most expansive and circumspect in nearly romantic expression, was followed in turn by shorter ones in mostly more animated character. Three of the six are among the best known (most popular?) of Scarlatti’s sonatas: the E Major with its trumpet-like fanfares, and the two in D Minor. The second of them, played last, fast and furious got a virtuosic aggression that was Beethovenian, a truly long distance vision. The G Major sonata was also fast and the second E Major both danceable and joyous.

There is a lot of interpretive latitude in these pieces and Margulis said he was not going to try to imitate the harpsichord. Indeed, here and elsewhere, he displayed both a fluid grace and a sharply percussive touch that sometimes might have been better called for in a larger venue than the intimate Hidden Valley ‘barn.’

Scriabin’s Poeme “Vers la flamme” (Toward the flame) was written just before the composer’s death from sepsis at age 42. A simple melody is soon encrusted with atonal harmonies and intense tremolos that rise to an ecstatic climax bringing to mind some of the piano music of Olivier Messiaen. But there was order not chaos in the piece as might have been the experience of anyone not familiar with it.

By the age of 20 Brahms had already composed his first three piano sonatas—before he first met Robert Schumann, the composer who would have the most far-ranging influence on the younger man’s music. The three sonatas, Opp 1, 2 and 5, are astoundingly ambitious; together they take an hour and forty minutes to perform. In them one hears—and feels—the tension between romantic excess (Dionysus) and classical restraint (Apollo) underpinned by startling rhythmic originality. We may thank one Eduard Marxsen, Brahms’ piano teacher, for reinforcing these qualities and stressing classical architecture to his gifted pupil.

Of the three sonatas, the third, at fully five movements, comes in at 40 minutes. I don’t remember if it was ever played here before, hence this guide: The first movement charges in with Allegro maestoso that then alternates with discursive reflection. The following Andante espressivo features a broad, songful melody and melting harmonies. The Scherzo, symphonic in the Lisztian sense, parries off against a gentler trio. The ensuing Intermezzo follows a funereal cadence. The Finale features a soaring, sturdy theme and lapses briefly into a fughetta. Brahms displays remarkable mastery over these elements, even as his later artistic personality has not yet come into full bloom. But his use of ‘call and response’ couplets—a hallmark of his mature style—is frequently evident.

This performance by the commanding Mr. Margulis made me wish I had attended his previous concerts at Hidden Valley. From the familiar faces in the audience, and their response, I could tell I was the new kid.