Assaff Weisman leads a busy life as a pianist, teacher at the Juilliard School, and chief of an international chamber ensemble whose debut disc arrives later this year.
To put it another way, he’s a thorough, expert musician, the kind on whom the classical world depends to keep the art form relevant and fresh for audiences and students. What remains for him is to carve out a truly distinctive style at the keyboard, and there were hints of what that could be at his recital Friday night in Boca Raton.
Appearing before a rather large house at the Steinway Gallery, Weisman presented music by Haydn, Liszt, Brahms and Debussy in a wide-ranging, demanding program that showcased the pianist’s command of different styles and his impressive technique, his sensitivity to dynamics and his interest in challenging repertoire.
The late Haydn sonata (No. 49 in E-flat, Hob. XVI: 49) that opened the concert was notable for its clarity and evenness, being smooth and polished from the first to the last. It could have used some more personality; the first movement (whose opening five-note riff needs to be absolutely precise, though it wasn’t here) needed a stronger, Beethovenian sense of forward motion, which perhaps could have been achieved in part with a little more drama, more lift on those Fifth Symphony-style precursor motifs in the middle, and wider dynamic contrast throughout.
Similarly, the second movement, lovely as Weisman’s tone production was, would have benefited with starker colors, especially in the B-flat minor triplet section and the transition section after it. The melodic fragments in the left hand of the triplet section, for instance, needed to strike a slightly longer pose, and each of the variations of the opening material might have come across with more shape had there been the tiniest of pauses before them.
Weisman played the last movement, marked as a minuet, with a leisurely tempo and much the same steady approach as the first two. And while it was quite attractive, more contrast, again, would have been welcome, perhaps with dynamic breadth on those cadential triplets, which would have reminded listeners why generations have cherished the musical wit of Papa Haydn.
The Debussy Estampes that followed the Haydn offered a good deal of well-applied color, particularly in Pagodes, the first of the three pieces in the set. Most notable was the hushed quality of much of Weisman’s performance, which created a compelling atmosphere of lush, perfumed stasis.
A bit too much of this mood carried over into La soirée dans Grenade, which sounded somewhat sluggish and much in need of some snap, especially in the habanera pulse that undergirds the piece, though technically speaking it was well-handled. The closing Jardins sous la pluie opened with a good, crisp tempo and ended with a powerful sense of steadily building exultation; although this music is more akin to Debussy’s Pour le Piano than some of the later Preludes, a more evanescent approach to its initial pages would have given it greater contrast with the other pieces and a more striking profile.
Liszt’s three Petrarch Sonnets opened the second half, which played to Weisman’s strengths as a provider of long, legato lines and singing tone. This was particularly true in the outer sonnets, Nos. 47 and 123, which were beautifully tender and serene, and in which Weisman was able, in No. 47, to provide a very attractive, glassy hush for the high-register accompaniment figures in the right hand.
The Sonnet No. 104, though, is equal parts fire and introspection, and in the bravura section in the middle Weisman sounded somewhat labored, and without enough lightness of touch to make a good contrast between the display of the middle section and the inwardness that opens and closes the piece.
For his final selection, Weisman chose the Handel Variations of Brahms (Op. 24), a fine, underappreciated piece in Brahms’ most exuberant early manner, thick figurations and all. Weisman did an admirable job of pacing this work so that it built gradually and inexorably to the final fugue.
This pianist’s feeling for cleanness of texture stood him in good stead in the opening theme (from the Harpsichord Suite No. 1 of Handel) and the first variation, the chattering march music of the seventh and eighth variations, and the siciliano of the 19th, which he played with a charming, engaging lilt.
The more lyrical variations – Nos. 5, 11 and 12 – also came off quite well, as did the repeated appoggiaturas of the 21st. In addition, Weisman raised serious energy in the more tumultuous variations, such as No. 14, and especially No. 24, which was among the most exciting playing of the evening.
Weisman played the closing fugue quite well, with a big, powerful ending that had the audience’s full attention. Still, varied as the fugue is, it still remains resolutely in the home key of B-flat, and this reading of the final section could have used some more shade and dramatic dynamic contrast. There has to be a sense of being taken into new territory, and this performance was just a touch too homebound.
For an encore, Weisman played the Impromptu in E-flat, Op. 24, No. 3, by the forgotten Russian pianist and composer Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952). This is a big, Rachmaninovian utterance (it’s subtitled Eros), full of expansive gestures and a breathless theme that drops by half-steps, though without the melodic distinction of Rachmaninov or Scriabin.
Weisman played it with power and sweep, if a bit too deliberately, and the audience responded warmly.
Assaff Weisman is a fine musician, an accomplished pianist who can play his instrument with persuasive skill and command. It seems to me that the next step for him is to add more color and shade, and a greater sense of mystery and drama, to his playing in order to fully realize his considerable talent and break new artistic ground.
The next event in the Piano Lovers series is set for Saturday, May 14. Serbian-born pianist Misha Dacic will play an all-Liszt program in honor of the composer’s 200th birthday. Tickets for the 7 p.m. recital are $20 in advance, and $25 at the door. Call 929-6633 for more information.