One of the best versions of the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations I’ve ever heard came courtesy of a YouTube video featuring a German cellist whom I’d never heard of, and whose career turned out to be largely in academia.
The classical music world has many excellent players like that, artists who have low public profiles but a stellar record of accomplishment. That’s one of the reasons arts critics like to go see unfamiliar players: We know there’s good music out there if you don’t mind where to look.
And so it was Wednesday night at the Society of the Four Arts, where the Brazilian pianist Arnaldo Cohen, who teaches at Indiana University’s prestigious Jacobs School of Music, gave a concert of music by Haydn, Brahms and Chopin, and did so in a way that refreshed the memory about the greatness of this literature.
Cohen has a large technique, and he plays with exemplary wrist action and with a steady application of weight from his shoulders rather than his arms. That allows him to be at relative ease at the keyboard, and even in the most difficult passages one got the sense of a workout, but not of struggle. The music he played Wednesday night was actually relentlessly difficult, but Cohen brought it all under control in efficient, thorough fashion.
That applied right off the bat to the opening work, a sonata by Haydn (in F, Hob. XVI: 23) written in 1773. It’s not particularly long, anguished, or complex, but its very clarity of texture puts a premium on regularity of tempo and accuracy of notes. Cohen gave the first movement’s flurries of 32nd notes a clear, flowing sound, and in the Italianate second movement, plenty of pretty singing tone.
The finale, one of those classic Haydn wit excursions, had the muscle performers sometimes miss. The little 16th-note turnaround in both hands that plays a big part in the second half of the main theme and the development section was drilled home, and gave the music a sense of coiled power.
The Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel (Op. 24) of Johannes Brahms, which came next, has the Brahmsian aesthetic in full flower, with thick, sometimes awkward writing, widely varied moods, and an overriding seriousness of purpose (few composers at this time were bothering to write fugues). The most memorable variations included the siciliano of Var. 19 and the bell-like Var. 22, but while those two usually stand out in any performance, Cohen sounded in control of every one of the variations, able to handle all the difficulties Brahms threw at him.
If the closing fugue was a little dry, part of it has to with the uninterrupted B-flat tonality, which modern ears tire of more quickly, and the bulkiness of the counterpoint. But Cohen’s conception of it, like his reading of the whole piece, had nobility, variety and bigness (especially with the added bottom B-flat for the final chord).
The second half of Cohen’s program was devoted to the four scherzi of Chopin, a true test of the pianist’s art. This is music with plenty of brilliance and indelible melody and harmony, but it’s also a good bit subtler than Haydn or Brahms, and it requires delicate adjustments to come off at its best.
Overall, Cohen could have taken some more time between each scherzo to let its effect fade before beginning the next one. He tended to jump right in to the following piece, which made the overall effect blur somewhat in the memory.
But these were sparkling readings of great music. In the first Scherzo (in B minor, Op. 20), Cohen chose a very rapid, exciting tempo for the opening music, which made his decision not to take the repeat somewhat puzzling. His finger control was mostly flawless, missing only one of those treacherous high Bs, and he made fine poetry out of the Lullaby, My Jesu mid-section, playing with an excellent hush and making sure to bring out the inner voices for some lovely shading.
The familiar second Scherzo (in B-flat minor, Op.31), was slightly rushed at the beginning; I could have used some more drama, such as a big pause between the low G-flat in the left hand and the resumption of the triplet theme. The A major contrasting section was nicely handled, especially in the way Cohen lingered over the last bars of the theme before the piece resumes its frantic-waltz dramatics.
The Third Scherzo (in C-sharp minor, Op. 39), would have benefited from a longer pause before Cohen started, so that the cragginess of the first bars would have its proper mystery. As it was, he went through it a bit too hastily, and there was also something of a rushed sense through the slower midsection. Again, though, his command of the technical aspects of the piece was clear and formidable, and he gave the work an athletic, vigorous interpretation.
The last of the scherzos, No. 4 in E (Op. 54), is in some ways the trickiest of the four in that its material is puckish and light-footed rather than stormy, and Chopin’s way of writing its utterances, with unison lead-ins, puts a premium on accurate display. Cohen handled all that expertly, with the proviso once again that programming all four back to back like this led him to charge through the piece too much, and it lost some of its shape. Still, he made good use of the back-and-forth slow trills that start to appear toward the end of the work, using them to build up impressive tension.
All in all, a masterful survey of these wonderful pieces, but I’d suggest breaking them up over a program’s length rather than one after another, so the audience could better take in each work’s special character.
Cohen closed with a workhorse Chopin encore, the Minute Waltz (in D-flat, Op. 64, No. 1), which showcased the pianist’s terrific fingerwork, and fine sense of dazzle. He almost jumped off the bench at the final chord in the left hand, somewhat like a runner who finally reaches the finish line with a leap of joy.
And well he might. This was an excellent concert by a pianist who deserves to be much better-known.