November 26, 2012
Canadian pianist Joel Hastings gave the very model of a perfect piano recital Sunday afternoon at the Sanderson Centre as part of the Brantford Music Club series. The first half was rather dark and heavy yet presented with such confident ease that the modest audience felt quite satisfied. It was a nice study in contrasts, too, between the very inner, personal world of Rachmaninoff and the very outer and church-like music of Cesar Franck. Indeed, right from the beginning of the Russian music the melody tended to be played by the thumbs in the middle register while shadows and emotions whirled above and below it. With Franck, the tune is usually on the top, searching for meaning while riding a crest of chords below. Hastings approaches all of this heavy material, Rachmaninoff's early Fantasy Pieces and Franck's Prelude, Aria and Finale, with a comfortable casualness, which removes much of the weighty intellectual angst and lets the glorious sound of the piano sing through. Hastings remarked that he had been here before, and was happy to be back to revel in the sound of this hall and that piano.
The second half was much lighter, beginning with three modern rags by contemporary American composer Carter Pann. These character pieces, musical portraits of people and events, were so readily acceptable to the audience that a portrait of that elder statesman of piano composition, William Bolcom, received spontaneous applause before the set was quite done. Hastings then melted into a lengthy rendition of George Gershwin's Love Walked In, arranged by that great Australian pianist and composer, Percy Grainger. Gershwin's soulful melody still shone through Grainger's shimmering piano stylings, and the combination of virtuoso piano technique in the service of great tunes made this the 20th-century equivalent of Franz Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert's songs. And, indeed, there was Liszt next on the program, but with one of his more carnival pieces, the 14th Hungarian Rhapsody. This showpiece with its simplistic bombast was almost comical in comparison with the eloquent pieces of the first half. But Hastings wisely cleansed our palate of this heavy red wine with an excellent choice of light sorbets: Mendelssohn's Rondo Capriccioso as an encore. The limpid clarity of the introduction in the major key and elfin dancing of the rondo in the minor key were just what this audience truly appreciated. Their standing ovation only after the encore seemed a fitting judgment on Hasting's entire concert; an ovation for the skill of his playing, for his quiet and settled demeanor, and most of all for the perfect balance wrapped up in this happy afternoon of piano music of such varied styles, hues and textures.