Yesterday afternoon at Old First Church, pianist William Wellborn celebrated the 25th anniversary of his debut recital in the Old First Concerts recital series. For this occasion he prepared one of the most elegantly conceived programs I have encountered in quite some time. Each half of the program (on either side of the intermission) presented three compositions, all oriented around a common theme. The theme of the first half could be entitled “Breaking with Past Practices,” while the second half addressed “The Art of Illustration.” Each half had a “focal point” at its “center,” which was “framed” by context-setting selections.
At the “center” of the first half was the French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, whose 200th birthday will be celebrated on November 30, a little more than a month from today. With his boundless enthusiasm for the nineteenth century, Wellborn was playing Alkan’s music long before many other pianists began to consider his work. This was an ambitious undertaking, since Alkan relished working on a grand scale. In some introductory remarks to the audience, Wellborn observed that Alkan could write an étude that would go on for about half an hour.
However, in celebration of this composer’s bicentennial year, Wellborn has chosen to turn his own attention to Alkan’s achievements as a miniaturist. Since his January recital in the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, Wellborn has been performing selections from Alkan’s Opus 63, a collection of 49 short pieces (some on the scale of a single minute) collected under the title Esquisses (sketches) and published in 1861. Yesterday he performed the same seven selections he had introduced in January:
- Liedchen (little song)
- Rigaudon (a Provençal dance form popular among the French baroque composers)
- Innocenzia (innocence)
- Morituri Te Salutant (the salute to the gladiators about to die)
- Les diablotins (the little devils)
- Le premier billet doux (the first love letter)
- Scherzetto (little scherzo)
These pieces are somewhat reminiscent of Robert Schumann’s 1848 Opus 68 album of 43 short pieces for his three daughters, each of which captures a single essence in almost haiku-like brevity; but there is no confusing the refinement of Alkan’s French rhetoric with Schumann’s plain-speaking German. Most important was that Wellborn’s approach to these short pieces evoked a wide variety of emotions ranging from the delicacy of that first love letter to the devils mocking the saints by impersonating them.
The frame for these selections was formed by two sonatas, the first by Joseph Haydn (Hoboken XVI/48 in C major) and the second by Ludwig van Beethoven (Opus 27, Number 2, in C-sharp minor). These two pieces are separated by only about a dozen years, 1789 for the Haydn and 1801 for the Beethoven. In them we observe both the elder Haydn and the younger Beethoven departing from the prevailing conventions of what we now call “the classical style” (thanks to Charles Rosen), just as Alkan had decided to depart from his extended longeurs in his Opus 63.
Haydn’s sonata consists of only two movements. The first is little more than an improvisatory fantasia on a two-measure motif, packed to the gills with embellishing flourishes that seem almost deliberately calculated to disorient the listener’s sense of tempo. The second movement, on the other hand, is a Presto Rondo in duple time in which time flies as if competing in a hundred-yard dash. Haydn’s wit is at full force in this sonata, but Wellborn knew how to couch it in a teasing subtlety that conceals how deeply the listener’s expectations have been undermined.
The Beethoven sonata, on the other hand, was explicitly designated “quasi fantasia.” It is best known for the “Moonlight” epithet attached by a publisher to beef up his sales numbers. That title tends to distract from the sophistication of multi-voice counterpoint that drives forward the all-too-familiar opening movement, not to mention the adventurous harmonic progressions induced by Beethoven’s focus on that counterpoint. Of the three movements, only the ternary form of the middle Allegretto seems to honor past convention, while the outer movements establish first the calm and then the storm, each with a characteristic rhetoric that constituted a firm break with traditional practices.
The central work on the “illustrative” half of the program was the first book of Claude Debussy’s Images. Wellborn presented each of these three pieces with all of the necessary technical discipline through which the “visual” elements of Debussy’s writing could emerge. That discipline served the final piece, “Mouvement,” particularly well, summoning up all the wheels and linkages of some fantastic perpetual motion machine.
Debussy’s “images,” which were never shy in taking freedoms with conventional rhythmic structures, were “framed” by two waltzes that could not have been more different. Carl Maria von Weber’s Opus 65 “Invitation to the Dance,” performed (for a welcome change) in its original piano version, summoned up all the high spirits of the waltz form at a time when it was just beginning to appear in ballrooms, complete with the erotic connotations of a dance in which the dancers actually held each other, rather than restricting physical contact to glancing touches (enhanced by heartfelt stares). On the other hand, the only thing waltz-like about Franz Liszt’s first “Mephisto Waltz” is the drive of its three-beat metre. True to its title, however, those three beats burst forth at a tempo that would quickly force any ballroom dancer to collapse from exhaustion. This is seriously “diabolic” music; and Wellborn did justice to every ounce of dramatism that Liszt packed into each of his measures.
There was also a bit of “framing” in Wellborn’s presentations of his encores. He began and ended with waltzes by Frédéric Chopin, both from Opus 64. The second waltz in this set, in C-sharp minor, began the encores; and the first in D-flat major (“Minute”) concluded them. Between these two selections, the mood turned Spanish with a Hispanic-influenced sonata by Domenico Scarlatti (catalog number not given) and the fifth (“Anadaluza” in E minor) from Enrique Granados’ collection of twelve Spanish dances.
Taken as a whole, this was a program abundant in its imaginative offerings, the perfect way to look back on 25 years of recitals with Old First Concerts.