“88 Keys to Delight” — Review of Sara Davis Buechner at Baruch Performing Arts Center
New York, NY, 25 October 2017
ConcertoNet.com, reviewed by Harry Rolnick
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fantasy and Sonata in C Minor, KV 475/457
Frédéric Chopin: Introduction and Rondo in E flat major, Opus 16
Anton Arensky: Four Salon Pieces
George Gershwin: Second Rhapsody (Arranged by Ms. Buechner for solo piano)
The last time I heard Sara Davis Buechner, I was mesmerized and frustrated. Playing music of three contemporary Japanese composers (she divides her time between Japan and Philadelphia), she proved astonishing in technique, imaginative, original in her partnership with a Japanese mask-dancer. But a wee bit frustrated because I wanted to hear Ms. Buechner essay something in…well, I hate to say the mainstream. Yet, yes, how would she handle our own composers?
Last night at Baruch College, in their Silberman Recital Series, she did not quite fulfill anything mainstream. What she did instead was totally overturn my idolization of the late Earl Wild. Wild was perhaps the only pianist in the world who could out-Gershwin George Gershwin. Not extemporize or improvise but play Gershwin the way the composer himself would have loved. With style, magnificent fingers and that most neglected adjective, grace. Ms. Buechner did that one better, by discovering an unfinished arrangement by George Gershwin. It had originally been written for a 1931 movie about an immigrant in New York, then enlarged for piano and orchestra. Gershwin started to write a solo piece (calling it Rhapsody in Rivets), but his premature death precluded its completion. That was when Ms. Buechner took over. Not only introducing the work but playing an Ira & George Gershwin pop song (“Oh, do, do, do/What you’ve/Done, done, done before, baby”) and made it sheer Gershwin cum Wild cum Buechner. It was an irresistible music, and nobody could resist it. They could resist that Second Rhapsody, though it was played with that same flair, the same instinctual rhythm which the ebullient Ms. Buechner has in excess. The piece itself comes from a simple four-note cell in the bass, and continues on with flashes of Rhapsody in Blue (notably the third theme with those percussive high C’s) yet with all the Gershwin buoyancy. It might never take the place of the first Rhapsody or even the F Major Concerto, but hearing Ms. Buechner play it was sheer joy.
The other unfamiliar works were by Anton Arensky, who is best known for supplying a theme for Tchaikovsky. He died at the age of 45, from drink and dissolution, much to the approbation of his puritan teacher RimskyKorsakov. But as was evident here, he must have been a great pianist, as well as the teacher of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. Except for a firework Etude (Opus 41, No. 2), his music sounded Schumannesque. Two moods in each work, a bit of longing, a few semi-Slavic chords, and two picturesque works from Près de la Mer (“By the Sea”). Ms. Buechner called them “Four Salon Pieces,” but this belittles works which are more than charming.
Not perhaps by coincidence, Arensky was the only composer on the program who passed the age of 40. Gershwin and Chopin both died at the age of 39, and Mozart of course died in his mid-30’s. The Mozart played here was the composer at his most daring, most lachrymose, most inward, most…well, most Mahleresque Late Romantic, in the K. 475 C Minor Fantasia. For a recital of such ebullience, with Ms. Buechner’s amiable introductions in this Baruch College auditorium, this was hardly an appropriate introduction. Except that its somber, strange, multithemed cries are so utterly gorgeous that a fine player like Ms. Buechner can make it truly emotional. So splendid is this work that few pianists play it, as intended, with the C Minor Sonata, which had been written a few years before. This was an opportunity to seize the day, and after the somewhat morose opening, she jet-propelled into the opening, and, without a technical hitch, almost managed to match the Fantasia in depth.
For a recital featuring composers who died too early, her Chopin Introduction and Rondo was composed by a 23-year-old man who had the joy and velocity of a teenage wunderkind. No matter how many times it is heard, one can’t remember any particular theme from the great melodist. But if Chopin wanted to flaunt his chops when reaching Paris, this did it. As did Sara Davis Buechner. She didn’t assail the work: she sailed through it with the same joy in which she tackled the Gershwin. In fact, besides her mesmerizing technique and intelligence, one has the feeling that she created and played these works not to plumb into our most profound spirit, but simply, and satisfactorily for our delight.