Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review: Arnaldo Cohen

Feb. 20, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

Scherzo literally translates as “joke;” but as a musical form the scherzo exhibits a variety of humors, from the bumptiousness of Beethoven to the playful traceries of Mendelssohn to the demonic intensity of Bruckner. The four scherzos that Chopin wrote for piano show all those qualities at one point or another, and mask fairly strict classical structure with the italicized phrasing and high sentiments of romanticism. They bring out the rhetorician in a pianist.

Arnaldo Cohen, the Brazilian-born pianist based at Indiana University, made pretty stern work of the Chopin set in this weekend’s installment of VCU's Rennolds Chamber Concerts.

Cohen’s technique emphasized power and clarity; his pacing tended toward the brisk, and dynamism sounded to be a higher priority than rubato in his phrasing. His bright, unsmudged treatment yielded the best outcomes in the central works of the set, the dramatically inflected scherzos in B flat minor, Op. 31, and C sharp minor, Op. 39.

The same qualities prevailed in Cohen’s performance of Busoni’s grand-piano version of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, originally for solo violin. Brilliant high notes, emphatic bass and crisp rhythms directed the ear to Bach’s creation rather than Busoni’s elaborations on it.

The pianist devoted the rest of his program to miniatures by Brazilian composers of the early 20th century, only one of whom, Ernesto Nazareth, is well-known outside Brazil. Alberto Nepomuceno’s Air from “Suite Antiga” harkened back to Bach – it proved an apt postscript to the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. Waltzes by Radames Gnattali, Luis Levy and Francisco Braga played on bright tone colors; Levy’s “Valsa Lenta” had a nostalgic undertone more than vaguely recalling Scott Joplin.

Nazareth’s familiar “Odeon” and less familiar “Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho” were characterized by nervy energy and bright coloring, but not much sensuality.