Solo piano concerts have come to hold a dual, contradictory status. They are ubiquitous in classical circles, where they serve didactic and diagnostic purposes through competitions and senior recitals. They’re also something of an anachronism in the contemporary sonic landscape, where digital listening threatens its live counterpart. Last Wednesday night, pianist Sara Davis Buechner brought something essential back to the Barnes Hall stage that too often eludes the musically inclined among us: humility.
It was evident in her curatorial preambles, in which she waxed to the audience anecdotally, passionately and honestly about the history of each piece before playing it. These thumbnail sketches provided a basis for absorption, an insider’s perspective on secrets that typically remain the performer’s sole purview. All the more appropriate, then, that the connective tissue of her program should be Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), an influential editor too often neglected as a composer, and whose breakout Elegies she rendered with experienced love. While foreknowledge can sometimes hinder appreciation, in this case knowing to expect an unconventional setting of a Bach chorale prelude or a quotation of “Greensleeves” allowed Buechner to transcend these bon mots with invention. From the set’s opening C-major triad, she spun wondrous and dynamic darkness, tumbling through Italian folk motifs and tempestuous dialogues with ease and leaving a trail of color bursts in her wake. Despite a formidable dynamic range, Buechner was careful to control grandeur within reason, pushing as much back into the keys as she was pulling from them, so as to honor the occasional contemplation. Busoni’s non-tonal language was thus properly illuminated, a dissonant body casting a harmonious shadow.
As is her gracious habit, Buechner paid homage to local culture by following with the 2010 Soliloquy, written for her by Takuma Itoh D.M.A. ‘12. Deeply impressionistic, it offered welcome shelter from Busoni’s storm. Cupped in the hands of a winter’s night, it was difficult not to read it as a full and rising moon. It embodied the dusting of snow outside the venue as much as the footprints left behind by those who had traveled through it to get there.
The Six Etudes for Piano, Op. 70 of Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) refastened attention to Busoni, who championed the young Italian among other fledgling composers of his time. Each of Casella’s knuckle-busting etudes was distinct, not least for all for bearing dedication to a different pianist. Collectively, they were something of a musical turnstile, allowing controlled access to changing textures. And while it was, between its aerobic trills and racing tempi, a technical tour de force, Buechner’s attention to choreography made it shine.
Capping off these lesser knowns were the Six Grand Etudes after Paganini of 19th-century juggernaut Franz Liszt, whose flamboyant personality was evident in every stroke. Buechner opted, as any sane pianist would, for the Busoni edition of these often-revised pieces, and with that connection brought her theme full circle. Whether playing a formidable passage for left hand only or executing runs with apparent ease, Buechner kept the mood as fresh as a farmer’s market and carried an underlying energy to its logical endpoint.
She then encored with a foxtrot called “Do-Do-Do,” a delightful confection she learned by ear from a rare recording of George Gershwin piano rolls. Witnessing her consummate balancing act of both the tune’s mechanical and expressive tendencies, it would come as no surprise to learn that she is one of the world’s few active silent film piano score interpreters. Every chord painted a kind of smile that one just doesn’t see any more on the silver screen.
Tyran Grillo is a graduate student at Cornell University. He can be reached at email@example.com.