Simon's Rock: Pianist Stephen Porter Journeys through late musical styles


Special to the Eagle

GREAT BARRINGTON -- The program was titled "Late Style" but it could as easily have been "Late Styles."

Pianist Stephen Porter set out to show that late works of four composers are connected by advanced harmony, a near-improvisatory spirit and philosophical "calm." Substitute "introspection" for "calm," and the point was well taken. Still, each composer remained stubbornly himself.

The solo recital Saturday night in the South Berkshire Concerts series at Simon’s Rock opened with short works by Debussy, Chopin and Beethoven, and closed with Schubert’s transcendent Sonata in B flat. The Boston-based pianist will never qualify as a whiz-bang virtuoso -- some of his playing, especially in Schubert, was marred by errors and dropped notes -- but that’s not his style.

Intelligence is the key: finding connections without being didactic about it. Thinking differently. Supplying useful program notes but not blathering on from the stage.

Could you hear approaching death in these pieces from the composers’ last years?

No, but you could hear the refinement and purification that come from the winnowing to essentials that an older, seasoned person experiences. (Think also of Verdi and Brahms in this context.) Compare the Schubert sonata, composed only a few weeks before his death, with his "Trout" Quintet or "Arpeggione" Sonata, and you instantly hear youthful ebullience descend (or transcend) into mystical brooding.

Or, to take the rest of the program:

Compare Beethoven’s six Bagatelles, Opus 126, with his "Appassionata" and "Waldstein" sonatas. You hear grand visions boiled down into miniatures that no longer dare fate, but now accept it, though with grumbling. In larger form, this is the world of Beethoven’s profoundly searching three last piano sonatas.

Three pieces by Debussy -- two etudes and "Poissons d’or" -- echo his earlier works but turn dark and inward with strange turns of harmony and rhythm. (But then, Debussy was always more modernist than impressionist.) Chopin’s two Nocturnes, Opus 62, undergo a similar transformation, his melting lyricism and soulfulness now shadowed by dissonances and irregularities.


In each piece, Porter, who has performed often on early pianos, went for transparency of line instead of the richer sonorities possible on a Steinway grand like Simon’s Rock’s. This, along with the strangeness of the works themselves, paid off in the shorter pieces. You heard these composers anew. In fact, the abrupt alterations in the "presto" fourth of Beethoven’s bagatelles were a minor revelation of the old man’s thinking.

Porter allowed himself wide fluctuations of tempo in Schubert’s plunge into the unknown. The playing never really settled down, and the ominous first-movement trills in the bass sounded muffled. The dream state was gone but nothing seemed to appear in its place. The enthusiastic audience thought otherwise.


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