Monday, March 26, 2007

Review: Charles Staples

Pianist Charles Staples
March 25, Trinity United Methodist Church, Richmond

Charles Staples is a handy pianist to have around. When the Richmond Symphony wants to do a little Liszt, or the Richmond Philharmonic wants to do a little more Rachmaninoff, they call Staples. When musicians want a recital or rehearsal partner, they call Staples. And when he presents a recital of his own, it isn’t some platter of dainties but big, meaty slabs of repertory.

Staples first got my undivided attention 10 years ago, when he played Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959. This late sample of Schubert at "heavenly length" can easily send the listener into a reverie of cozy unease, as if you were spending a long afternoon in a parlor full of great-aunts. Staples made it an engrossing monologue, tapping its deepest passions and using its overt and implied dance rhythms to keep it moving.

He makes much the same impression in the program he has prepared for a visit to Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall: Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, Beethoven’s "Moonlight" Sonata and Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5.

In the first of two Richmond previews, Staples looked and sounded to be fueled by nervous energy – not a bad way to approach the Busoni Chaconne, whose blizzard of notes and surging dynamics require both nerve and energy to bring off.

His temperament settled, but his energy remained undiminished, in the Beethoven. The opening adagio was suitably nocturnal; Staples departed from the sostenuto (sustained) tempo marking for expressive purposes, but not to excess. His treatment of the presto finale again was nervy, but constructively so in music that needs to feel unrestrained.

Brahms’ youthful sonata (he was 20 when it was introduced) showcased Staples at his best, taking on a large musical essay and clarifying its long lines while voicing its widely varied moods. Although not technically flawless – there was some smudging in the densest passages, and the occasional dropped note – it was a robust, lyrical reading that rose to Brahms’ lofty rhetorical heights and conveyed the inner turbulence that propels this music.

Staples repeats the program at 8 p.m. March 26 at Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, Park Avenue at Harrison Street, Richmond. Admission is free. Information: (804) 828-6776. He presents the same program at 5:30 p.m. March 31 at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in New York. Tickets: $20. Information: (212) 247-7800 or