Recent musical summers have become richer hereabouts with the programming of the Mainly Mozart Festival, a long-running concert series in Coral Gables that got fresh, innovative energy under the leadership of pianist Marina Radiushina.
Unwilling to let this summer go, Radiushina is presenting her series online as we all wrestle with the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning with cellist Zlatomir Fung and continuing last Saturday with Bulgarian pianist Nadejda Vlaeva, who performed her program from her apartment in New York City.
This recital was presented in the somewhat overly precious style that the festival likes to adopt; this time, the recital was moderated by pianist Zsolt Bognar, the producer of the valuable video series Living the Classical Life, which features long-form interviews with A-list classical celebrities such as Yuja Wang and Joshua Bell. He posed his own questions to Vlaeva and took a couple from listener submissions after the recital ended.
Vlaeva’s program was distinctly unusual, with three rarely heard pieces by familiar and unfamiliar composers, and ending with a better-known transcription by Franz Liszt, fitting for a pianist who, at age 15, took third prize in the Franz Liszt International Piano Competition in 1996. There was a fifth piece, too: Bognar introduced the program with a video of Vlaeva playing Camille Saint-Saëns’s transcription of the overture to J.S. Bach’s cantata Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (BWV 29; also familiar as the opening of the E major Violin Sonata).
From her first piece, an Intermezzo in G minor (Op. 55) by the German composer Paul Klengel (whose much better-known brother Julius made important contributions to the cello repertoire), Vlaeva demonstrated the strengths she would exhibit throughout the recital: Deft fingerwork, a strong, accurate technique and an appealingly sensitive approach to late Romantic music like this. Klengel’s piece, a pretty, melody-focused rumination, was well-crafted without being particularly memorable, but a nice change of pace from the typical piano program.
Next up was Fantasy on The Last Rose of Summer (Op. 15), composed in 1827 by a teenaged Felix Mendelssohn to Thomas Moore’s still-popular setting of an Irish folksong. We hear too little of Mendelssohn’s solo piano music these days, and while this Fantasy is ultimately quite conservative and less of a showpiece than the title might suggest, it alternates slow variations on the sentimental song with fiery Presto passages in E minor that offer vivid contrast and a good sense of compositional balance. Vlaeva’s solid technique served her well here, as did her feeling for Mendelssohn’s intimate moods, and she ended this interesting work with delicacy and beauty.
Vlaeva chose a work by Bulgaria’s most important composer to date, Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978), who lived for two decades in Berlin, part of them working for director Max Reinhardt, before returning to Sofia in 1932. Historians note that his music adopted more of a Bulgarian national style in the 1920s, and that by the end of his career his work had synthesized several different folk and national traditions. His Prelude Exotique No. 3 (Op. 17, No. 3) from 1924 evoked the music of Spain. Vladigerov’s piece is essentially Lisztian tourist music, but Vlaeva brought it off with high style and bravura.
Saturday’s program ended with music of Wagner, specifically “Isolde’s Love-Death” from his opera Tristan und Isolde, as transcribed for piano by Liszt. Vlaeva played the opening with great softness and mystery, setting the slow-paced but exultant mood needed for this well-known operatic excerpt. But while she paced the transcription admirably well and hit the climatic octaves clearly, the music at that point lacked the sense of erotic overdrive it needs to be successful. The piano is not exactly the best instrument to bring that across, but it can be done if the performer makes the music sound as if she or he is about to lose control of it. Vlaeva’s performance was solid, intelligent and well-rehearsed, but it needed more abandon, more turmoil, more heat.
Nadejda Vlaeva is a very fine pianist whose enthusiasm for offbeat repertoire is something the classical music world needs, and it was good to hear her on this important South Florida series. Perhaps next time, something by Vladigerov with a stronger Bulgarian identity would draw us in even more to this expert musician’s artistic project.
Live with Mainly Mozart continues at 4 pm Saturday with a concert by violist Richard O’Neill, who will play works by Bach, Schubert and Beethoven. To register for this free concert, visit www.mainlymozart.com/register.