Eugene Gienger – Dakota Pianist – more feeling than fireworks…..

Eugene Gienger – Dakota pianist

Piano recital at St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace

BEETHOVEN – 32 Variations in C Minor / SOLER – 3 Sonatas

SCHUBERT – Fantasy in C Major (“Wanderer”)  / William WIELAND (b.1964) – Orpheus and Eurydice

LISZT – Après une lecture du Dante – Fantasia quasi Sonata (from Années de pèlerinage)

SOUSA (arr. Horowitz) – The Stars and Stripes Forever

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, April 6th 2014

Eugene Gienger, an engagingly self-styled “Dakota Pianist” originally hails from Streeter, North Dakota, USA. According to his accompanying publicity he is the only pianist of renown to have emerged from the Dakota region, and can therefore be counted as a kind of “local boy made good”. An international performer, he has given recitals and concerto performances in the United States, Canada, Russia and Australia. He’s currently in New Zealand, running a “piano academy” in Karori, Wellington, for pre-school children, as well as (perhaps on a less formal basis) providing tuition and guidance for older students about to study the instrument at a tertiary level.

His traversal of a number of pieces reckoned to be among the most difficult in the romantic keyboard repertoire certainly gave ample opportunity for listeners at St. Andrew’s Church in Wellington to gauge the extent of his prowess as a pianist. It was, as the saying goes in pianistic circles, a “knuckle-breaker” of a programme, with things such as Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasia cheek-by-jowl with Liszt’s “Dante” Sonata and Vladimir Horowitz’s celebrated pianistic “circus-act”, his transcription for keyboard of Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” March.

As well, not much respite was given by Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C Minor, and a work receiving its New Zealand premiere, Orpheus and Eurydice, written by one William Wieland, a contemporary American composer. Amongst these more strenuous musical realizations, three charming jewel-like sonatas from the pen of Father Antonio Soler (a contemporary of Domenico Scarlatti) provided some decibel and figurative relief, for contrast’s sakes, obviously.

I came away from the recital appreciative of Mr.Gienger’s keyboard facility, but ultimately wishing he had chosen a larger proportion of repertoire for the concert which relied rather less insistently on sheer prestidigitation and more on philosophical content. There was no doubting that the pianist could actually “play” the notes throughout, though parts of both the Schubert, the Liszt, and the Horowitz Sousa arrangement needed to my ears a more transcendentally-driven approach for the music to really ignite around its edges and properly conflagrate. I’ve previously heard both the Liszt Dante Sonata and the Schubert Fantasia (also during the same recital), as well as, on a different occasion, the Sousa-Horowitz “live” in Wellington from pianists who could REALLY stoke the virtuoso fires – and as with the Schubert Fantasia, that kind of technical response is needed to unlock certain integral essences in this super-charged music.

Make no mistake,  I enjoyed Mr. Gienger’s playing immensely, but thought that some of the claims for his playing published in material available at the concert had a rather less exalted basis on this recital’s showing – for example, to quote a review saying of his Liszt-playing in another recital that “these interpretations stand side-by-side with the most acclaimed versions of the greatest pianists” didn’t for me accord with the performance of the “Dante” Sonata that we heard. Yes, the notes were there, and the more reflective moments of the work I thought had real poetry and seemed to convey a true sense of the ethos of renaissance conceptions concerning the afterlife – but the “hollow ring” of those tritones and dissonant harmonies throughout the introduction, the implied terror and despair at the thought of eternal damnation, was under-characterised, as was the frenetic nature of the chromatic theme representing the souls in hell.

In fact Gienger’s conception of the music seemed more wrought from immutable marble and stone than from fire and brimstone and volatile feelings – in its way a valid representation, a kind of abstraction (as is every realization of a score, of course) which in this case stood slightly apart from the in-one’s face coruscations associated with the piece. I still think a certain amount of “visceral devilment” needs to emanate from the music’s figurations and textures, some Lisztian bravura of the kind that Jian Liu’s playing of the work in a 2012 recital at the Ilott Theatre presented in abundance. In that performance, pianist, instrument and music seemed all to be “possessed”, whereas here, Gienger remained our “guide”, his playing seeming to me recounting (albeit with plenty of energy and commitment) rather than actually reliving Liszt’s remarkable Dante-esque visions.

I thought the pianist more successfully carried and maintained the virtuoso physicalities of Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasia – again, it wasn’t a barnstorming, sulphurously-lit performance (the composer famously and despairingly invoking the devil’s own assistance at a public performance of the work, which, alas, wasn’t forthcoming at the time!), but at least one of music certainly requiring a certain trajectory of energy in places. This force and girth Gienger was able to supply, even if he seemed to me to be taxed to his technical limits in places during the fugal finale – which circumstance in itself certainly seemed to give a kind of tension, a performing edge to the listening experience.

Earlier he’d nicely delineated the first movement’s terraced dynamics, giving the famous opening rhythmic figurations plenty of variety of voice, and summoning up a cumulative drive in places which had plenty of feeling of engagement with the music. He managed the magical transition to the “Der Wanderer” quotation with rapt wonderment, ushering in all of the writing’s entrancement and rapt, almost religious feeling. When the music’s texture fragmented in to what seemed like many voices, the pianist gave us lovely filigree work, realizing the toccata-like sequences and the reprise of the melody over a tremolando bass with equal aplomb.

With the scherzo that followed Gienger emphasized its somewhat angular charm, gradually working up a sufficient head of steam with which to launch those first portentous fugal statements that came to dominate the final section. Again, though I felt the playing throughout didn’t have the gleam and glint of truly infernal devilry, it generated its own trajectories and momentums towards a rousing finish. Earlier in the half we’d “warmed up” with Beethoven’s fascinating set of Variations in C Minor, which the pianist described as a set of etudes – an interesting way of regarding the music – and, after that, three enchanting sonatas by Father Antonio Soler, most winningly realized as examples of possibly very early music for the then-new forte-piano.

A kind of companion-piece to the Frank Stemper Sonata, which was played the previous week by Korean pianist Junghwa Lee, was another New Zealand premiere of a contemporary American work for piano – William Wieland’s six-part meditation upon the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The work seemed to divide opinion among the audience members I spoke with afterwards, but I thought the whole piece most interesting in conception and delivery – six vignette-like scenes which represented each part of the story. Mr Gienger was a most persuasive advocate of the music both as a speaker and as a player (the latter role befitting the dedicatee, of course!) and it wasn’t any fault of his that in a couple of places I found the story-sequences rather too abstracted, as opposed to other moments which were very obviously representational in intent. I wanted some of the events to receive more of their due from the music at certain points, rather as individual arias in opera suspend the action in order to enrich moments of high emotion or more vividly describe a scenario.

Nevertheless, there were marvellous evocations to enjoy, even if some of them passed all too quickly – I particularly liked the opening celebratory music depicting the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice (entitled “Bliss”), with its festive figurations and rustic dance impulses, and thought the sudden shift into a state of shock, horror and loss when Eurydice suddenly dies of a snake-bite extremely effective. The pianist’s fingers had to conjure up three different strands of feeling – a right-hand lament, a left-hand whose deep tones suggested the Underworld, and the toll of a bell in the middle of the keyboard suggesting the inevitability of fate.

A similar kind of transition occurred after Orpheus had played his lyre to win back Eurydice from Death’s clutches, but then lost her irrevocably during the ascent by turning and looking back at her. At that point the music suddenly shed its Lisztian radiance and snatches of renewed bliss, and plunged the soundscape into darkness with harsh, bitter tones, resolving at the end with the return of fate’s tolling bell. So, a vivid and characterful retelling of the ancient story, then, even if I did want certain sections to linger more and allow more expansiveness of response and feeling.

I do hope Mr Gienger will give us another recital some time, and that he concerns himself more with music of greater poetic and philosophic substance and manner – every piano-fancier will have her/his little list of “favourite things”, including, probably, Mr Gienger.  It will be interesting to see what he inclines towards after this……conjuring a name and an associated body of work from the air, I would suggest, say, Schumann?

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