Review by Craig Russell, PhD
I have been enjoying immensely the CDs Benediction and To Spring. The tracks from these two recordings are already becoming favorites on my I-tunes files, and if they were actual vinyl recordings they would be suffering from deep grooves from being played so many times.
First, no one crafts a phrase better than you. One particular aspect of your artistry that I adore is your ability to “speak” to the listener, conveying both the sense of the phrase and at the same time conveying a sense of deeper meaning (that is, the reason someone is speaking or singing a phrase). Each of your pieces and—more importantly—each of your phrases has meaning behind it. There’s a word for that kind of accomplishment—you are a musician. We both know the world is chockfull of pianists, but a musician is a much rarer jewel to find in our lives. You are both pianist and musician.
I think I’ve gone through a ream of scratch paper, scribbling down my thoughts because they were so plentiful—let me pull out a few examples. The Brahms “Intermezzo in A-major” on To Spring has gentle arches that rise and fall in the underlying sub-phrases, as if they are animated by life itself—they seem to be breath. This is trickier than it seems, as you well know, because Brahms is throwing at us several different strata of activities and textures, yet Brahms hands the task of multiple lines over to a single person! The cross-rhythms between these lines is always clear and natural, and the tune always sings. On the same CD, we hear Grieg’s “In My Homeland,” a tender, gorgeous piece where blooming harmonies surprise us as if they were spring crocuses and daffodils pushing up through the snow.
Torsten, this is one of your strengths—the ability to provide gorgeous, tender beauty and to nudge the listener to introspection. You have the technical “chops” to wow us, but you choose a higher goal – and a more difficult one to achieve. These two CDs, in their choice of repertoire and in your pianistic artistry you employed when recording them, elicit the kinder, wistful, and more substantial aspects of the human spirit. Anyone, with enough practice and with enough extroverted repertoire, can elicit uproarious, thunderous applause and excited shouts of “Bravo! Encore!” It’s not all that hard to impress a crowd. You could have chosen that road, because you obviously have the technical virtuosity to achieve that end. But your path is different. In these two CDs, you have elected instead to elicit a “sigh”, and you provide us with a pensive reflection about music, life, and the magical thread that connects those two—music. Really, Torsten, a sigh lasts longer than any shout of “encore!” You are the wise player who knows where true substance lies.
I could play almost any track to illustrate that previous point, but I will name only a few. “Erotique” by Grieg is rich in wistful introspection. On the other side of the emotional scale is Brahms’s “Intermezzo in A-major” with its glowing warm sonorities. But in both cases, the listener is left with thoughts that have an “aftertaste.” The listener is shaped and moved, long after the sound stops. On Benediction, the light-hearted joy produced by Liszt through the agility of your fingers causes one to listen (and only subsequently, to clap). The phrasing on the “Liebestraum” that opens the CD is equally subtle and balanced—yet passionate.
Perhaps that is one of your great gifts—to convey passion without being showy. If any one has cause to be an ostentatious show-off, it could be you: but Torsten, in each phrase of your playing (and in each phrase that leaves your mouth and each act of your life), you place your values elsewhere, and it is obvious to anyone who cares to listen with care. You are passionate yet tender and introspective all in the same stroke. Even “big” works that fill the room with sound never descend into garish bombast. The Rachmaninoff “Prelude in E” switches back and forth between the dancing phrases and the bold, colossal chords, but with an apparent ease and grace that sands off the rough edges that plague most performances of this work. You coordinate your dynamics with the architectural structure of the work, showing us its construction (and, as always, maintaining the work’s passion). I might add, that I experience the middle of this track as a sort of climax towards which we have been building, not just of this movement but of the CD as a whole, up to this point.
And that leads me to another aspect of the two CDs—their sense of “completeness” on a larger scale. Benediction (whose title is partially drawn from the Liszt “Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude” that graces this recording) has three well selected artists: Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin. Your choice of repertoire from these three, however, highlights the virtues I previously pointed out. The works are introspective in nature, at least in your hands. It is refreshing to hear Liszt as one who is searching for divine virtue, both in his life and his music (not just a reflection of Liszt-the-womanizer). Anyone who delves into the mysterious contradictions of this man can sometimes be drawn to his failings and fabulously exotic or even scandalous personal life. But you have shown us the other side of this astounding artist—not his licentious drives and exotic quirks, but his heavenly vision of a higher good. Liszt is flawed (as is every human, and I am an unmistakable example of that fact), but we also are capable of something divinely inspired. I probably am overstepping my bounds here, talking about the human condition and aspects that spill into theology as much as they do musicology, but you asked for my view, and this is it: you are a musical sage who chooses his words, his music, and his actions, in order to illustrate that aspect of humanity that is searching for a “greater good,” the aspect that some call “the divine.” You reach for “goodness,” maybe even sacred.
I hate to digress to lesser virtues, but I really need to address a few technical details as well. Your articulations are always crisp and convey a lucidity to each phrase that is delightful and unfailingly appropriate. I could cite any piece to prove that, but let me provide only a couple of representative examples. The Chopin “Nocturne in D-flat” that closes To Spring has these ephemeral shifts from the high, floating register to the more melancholy sections. The phrases are sometimes sweeping in their arch, and your articulation brings out the songful, tender, kind soul of each phrase. Grieg’s “Butterfly” that opens To Spring flits about in a way completely different than the Brahms waves of sound in the Opus 118 Intermezzos, Ballade, and Romanze. In fact, I enjoy immensely the way you juxtapose the witty delicacy and programmatic blossoming of spring of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Opus 43 (that you choose to open your disc In Spring) with the dense gravitas, glowing warmth, and rhythmic complexity of the Brahms Piano Pieces, Opus 118 that ensue. This is the mature Brahms at his best. These works are not really pessimistic or sullen, but they do sound like the ruminations of a man who has lived fully and is looking back at the meaning of life. These are not the fruit of Brahms-the-teenager but of a sagacious prophet—and that is captured in your playing. Of course, the Ravel that comes next requires a plethora of different phrasing and articulation feats, including the use of the damper pedal in “new” ways that we did not hear in the Grieg or Brahms. You play each of these artists with a different approach, even in the way you articulate the lines. You are rather the Tom Hanks of piano players—you can convince me that you are anybody because each different “character” sounds so natural.
While I am waxing on about To Spring, I should mention that the Fred Balazs piece, “The Sea and Father Damien’s Little Church, Molokai, Hawaii,” is an absolute gem and is worth the price of your recording all by itself. But thanks to you, at last, someone is shining a glorious light on this man’s gift to the musical world. I am indebted to you for providing us a commercially available recording of a true jewel. Once again, Balazs’s piece provides you with a vehicle for you to demonstrate one of your musical gifts that I already mentioned—you are capable of providing a reason and a meaning for playing a phrase that goes down inside the human spirit and is not reliant solely on the virtuosity of one’s fingers (although no one could fault your impressive virtuosity!). I’m just emphasizing that you play at a level founded on substance, not on shallow obsessions with fame or the desire to impress.
Torsten, you follow the unsung triumph of the Balazs with one of the great masterpieces of Western civilization, the Chopin “Scherzo in B-flat minor”. Those who think they “know” this piece, should listen again—in your rendition. Once again, Torsten, you know how to “sing” at the keyboard and provide a clarity and lucidity that seems fresh and new. This musical chestnut does not feel worn and aged but instead freshly sprouted and born over once more. It seems that Chopin must have written it just for you in this very year for this specific CD. I don’t know where you befriended Chopin, but it sounds as if you are brothers, born of the same parents.
Also, I have to say that I adored your performance of Rachmaninoff on Benediction. Rachmaninoff is always “big,” but in your hands he is not overweight. You actually have a way of bringing out the subtle clarity of line and even a tenderness that is glossed over by the show-offs. Even big-boned, enormous football players can have the kindest of hearts, and you have shown us that the stereotype of Rachmaninoff (as with pro athletes) does a disservice to this composer. It is time to listen again to Rachmaninoff—in your hands—in order to discover these new hues of color and sensitivity. As with To Spring, you end Benediction with Chopin, all played with exquisite, singing lines.
And with that statement, I will close today’s epistle, summarizing what it is that I love most about your playing. You sing. Always. In each track of your CDs, and in each act of your life, you always sing. Thank you for that.
With much respect,
with much admiration,
and with love for a friend,
a wonderful artist
and human being,