IMPROMPTU CONCERT—THOMAS PANDOLFI, JANUARY 10, 2016

The Impromptu Concerts, Key West’s distinguished chamber music series, opened its forty-fourth season on Sunday at St. Paul’s with a solo piano performance by Thomas Pandolfi. The first set was all music by Franz Liszt; the second involved several Hispanic composers. It was a spectacular concert, earning Mr. Pandolfi four standing ovations, in response to each set and after both encores.

I am perhaps not the best choice of critics to discuss the music of Franz Lizst. He could (as Mr. Pandolfi told us) write slow, lovely, emotionally charged music, but he was also one of the pianist/composers, like Chopin, who developed the piano’s repertoire in the direction of extreme virtuosity. Historically, that has been at best a mixed blessing. At its worst, it has produced high-speed music—“The Carnival of Venice,” “The Flight of the Bumble Bee,” “The Blue Bells of Scotland”—which substitute showoff athleticism for music with true emotional integrity. This seems to be happening more and more nowadays: with the rapidly increasing number of fine instrumentalists in America, competition becomes always more severe, and the easiest way to succeed is by putting on a virtuosic show. Music like that is rather like the home run in baseball: it provides a quick cheap thrill, which diverts attention away from the true, often intricate and subtle, art of the game.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Liszt’s writing on those grounds—he is always better than that. But, an outstanding pianist himself, he often seems to have felt himself compelled to fill his scores with as many notes as possible, in ways that are not always to the music’s advantage. The second piece on Mr. Pandolfi’s program, the “Liebestraum #3,” begins with a lovely, simple melody, base on a harmonic structure which is both logical and interesting—in other words, a passage eminently worth demanding, and rewarding, one’s full attention—and then, suddenly, that melody is surrounded by a filigree of very fast arpeggiated passages, which had the effect, to my ear, of musical clutter.

None of these complaints should be taken to reflect on Mr. Pandolfi’s playing. He covered both sides of Liszt’s writing superbly, with technique to spare on the virtuosic passages and an exceptionally refined touch on the slower, legato ones, where the realy beauty is. He even made the transitions from one to another smoothly,without a break. The passage just mentioned required that he play both ways at once, in control on the main melodic line and with rapid and accurate technique on the surrounding passages.

Mr. Pandolfi’s playing in the second set, on music by Manuel Ponce, Enrique Granados, Ernesto Lecuona, and Manuel de Falla, was again exceptional. There was, again, a certain amount of unnecessary high-speed writing, but there were other strengths: Granados’ “The Maiden and the Nightingale” offered yet another simple, lovely line, and de Falla’s famed “Ritual Fire Dance” had an infectious rhythmic drive to it. This was especially welcome, since the rest of the concert offered fairly little in the way of interesting rhythms, which was unfortunate, given the excellence of the pianist’s left hand.

This concert was something of a repeat performance for Mr. Pandolfi: he appeared as the outstanding piano soloist in a Pops concert six years ago, playing two of the Liszt pieces which appeared later on this Impromptu program. His technique then was at the level of the most self-dramatizing of pianists, but it was always (as theirs sometimes is not) used to serve the music. His playing was strong, when that was required, but it also had at times a lovely delicacy which brought out the emotional basis of the music. His was then, as it was at St. Paul’s last Sunday, some of the most impressive piano playing I’ve heard. He is at his best when the music is slow, simple, legato, and at most mezzo-piano; but he does justice to every piece he plays.