Sunday, March 12, 2006

Mihaela's Air!

Paavo and friend Mihaela Ursuleasa enjoy a light moment after her performance with the CSO, March 2002 (photo by moi!)

As mentioned back in November, the spirited young Romanian pianist Mihaela Ursuleasa returns to Cincinnati next week to play a recital Tuesday, March 14 at 11 am, for the Matinee Musicale. It will take place at the Scottish Rite Auditorium, 317 East Fifth Street, downtown. Tickets are $15 general or $2 students and may be purchased at the door. Information may be obtained by calling (513)821-2228

From on the road in New York, Mihaela tells us that her program here will consist of Beethoven's Eroica Variations op. 35, Shostakovich's Preludes from op. 39, and Ginastera's Sonata No. 1. This sounds like a must-see/hear concert to me!

A recent appearance in San Francisco brought high praise for her playing, in a review for the San Francisco Classical Voice by Heuwell Tircuit, who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan, and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Sunday afternoon in the Florence Gould Theater, down in the bowels of the Legion of Honor, Romanian pianist Mihaela Ursuleasa played a recital whose neatness of design nearly rivaled the quality of her playing. Not one item on the program betokened an unimaginative reliance on the trite and true. But then, this was a presentation of San Francisco Performances, from which we have come to expect both fresh repertoire and fresh artists on the way up.

Ursuleasa opened with Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue in E-flat major, Op. 35, more commonly known to its friends as the "Eroica" Variations. This large set was followed by 13 of the Shostakovich 24 Preludes, Op. 34; Scriabin’s Three Etudes, Op. 65; and the full seven Brahms Fantasies, Op. 116. Cheers followed, a standing ovation, and then two short encores: a Romanian toccata and a schmaltzy prelude.

Ursulease displayed a natural, complete technique, honed in Vienna after her early successes. She gave her first public recital at age eight, and won international prizes by age 16 — not least the Clara Haskil Competition. She’s been playing major recitals and concertos with top orchestras all over the place ever since. One had a right to expect a lot. And, that’s what the audience received.

The Beethoven was glorious, although Beethoven’s devotion to that skeleton of a tune has always puzzled me. He used it in four different works: his early Contradanse No. 7, WoO 14 (a collection without an opus number); his second ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43; Sunday’s piano variations, Op. 35; and finally for the finale of his “Eroica” Symphony, Op. 55. Each fed on its predecessor, each extending ideas found in its older siblings.

Of course, while the raw theme is as pale as paper, that’s precisely its merit for variations. Decorative and alterational possibilities are endless. Complicated themes make for a compositional straitjacket. One has only to consider those full folk melodies used in so many 19th century pieces where there’s nothing much to do with them besides repeating them endlessly in different instrumental combinations.

Beethoven covered a lot of emotional ground in his 15 variations. Some are meltingly lyrical, others rambunctious in their extreme flights of virtuoso bravura. They were doubtless meant for his own use, to impress the Viennese and perhaps affright competing pianists. Ursuleasa's mastery of the 25-minute piece was total. Her playing was clean and resonant, free of pounding, even through the bravura passages, and right on the button for tempo selections. It’s the kind of Beethoven I have not heard since the heydays of Claudio Arrau and super-musician Clara Haskil herself.

Turning on a dime, Ursuleasa then altered her style of playing for the small Shostakovich cycle, a thing whose demands are totally different from those of Beethoven’s pristine heroics.
The Preludes date from 1932, when the composer was still in official favor. So among them there’s much of the saucy quality of the First Symphony and the early ballet scores such as The Age of Gold. Some are of course more serious than others, and even touched by outright Romanticism, à la Chopin here and there. In that sense, they represent a wonderful grab bag of goodies, and for me his finest work for solo piano.

The surprise is that Ursuleasa managed to slip in and out of the composer’s little fancies with so complete a vocabulary of sound. Yet even her staccato playing managed to avoid the usual hammering of the keys, with lots of appreciation for the madcap pieces like the sarcastic nose-thumbing Prelude No. 24. It was all throughly excellent.

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