JOHN ORLANDO’S 31st Distinguished Artists Series opened last month in Santa Cruz at the Peace United Church with a passionate piano recital by Thomas Pandolfi in his “Classics with a touch of poetry” recital. Included were muscular Mozart, soulful Schubert, big Beethoven, and the many-sided Liszt—especially a dream of love and a huge wrestling match with the devil. Pandolfi’s program ended with a fantasy on Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom of the Opera.
Mozart’s Sonata in F major, K. 332 may be from the Classic period, but Pandolfi gave it a big, romantic reading using quite a bit of pedal, dramatic contrasts and unusual touches that were music to the ears of this reviewer and the large audience as well. Schubert’s early and beloved Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 90, No. 4 sandwiches a melodic, lyrical middle between two outer sections of quick finger skips, a robust reading that continued Pandolfi’s intensely moving and original style.
Beethoven’s ever–popular Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 “Pathétique,” from 1797, breaks the classical mold in its mysterious first movement, which Pandolfi explored like a forensicist; huge contrasts of slow, funereal sections followed by explosive smashings out of the tomb, long slow singing lines and a rondo finale in exaggerated but controlled contrasts of speed.
The idiosyncratic Liszt transcription of Schumann’s song Widmung (Dedication) shows off both composers. Liszt’s “improved” version, an ever more passionate plea for romantic love with Clara Wieck which Schumann is said to have penned as her wedding present. This was followed by Liszt’s ever-popular Liebestraum No. 3 in A-Flat Major (Dream of Love), originally intended to accompany a singer of poetry, but here the gorgeous melody sang out with ease for a delighted audience.
Then off on a trip to hell with Liszt’s “Dante” Sonata, like Beethoven’s “Moonlight,” a name that conjures up each listener’s own mental movie as it unfolds. Also called a “Fantasia quasi Sonata; After a reading of Dante,” it opens with the dissonant tritone, forbidden in music for centuries because of its supposed invocation of Satan. Here Liszt, a devout Catholic intent upon becoming a priest until as a young man he heard and saw the “diablerie” of Niccolo Paganini on the fiddle, was converted into attempting his match at the keyboard. He was both attacking and celebrating the devil in this piece, which Pandolfi gave a truly great reading. Its middle angelic chorale book-ended by the strident opening and closing, Pandolfi’s whole body was engaged in the thrashing and striving tumultuous energy under controlled fury. The big Yamaha provided an almost fathomless power for this mortal combat, emerging unscathed and triumphant (as did the pianist) while putting the devil back in hell—at least for a while—with a smooth “Perfect 5th “ conclusion.
The first encore was Pandolfi’s own take on Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, a Liszt-style paraphrase during which I could actually visualize Sarah Brightman (the composer’s ex-wife) singing on stage.
Concluding the generous and demanding recital was the ever-popular slow and simple Chopin Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2, his most famous, played with a lot of rubato amid the golden voicings of the Yamaha CFX concert grand, but by now a calming effect upon an enthusiastic audience, very attentive through the musical offerings of this strikingly original pianist from Washington, D.C. If only our US Congress could be half as effective as Maestro Pandolfi is.