THE BLOG
11/14/2007 08:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hats Off, Gentlemen

In the glorious year 1978, I met the woman who would become my wife, I took the Connecticut bar examination, and pianist Severin von Eckardstein was born. When studying for the bar we were told the Three Rules for the essay portion of the examination: "Do not fall in love. Do not hate. Wishing does not make it so." They are also rules that music reviewers should follow with near-religious fervor.

Alas, I cannot. I have waited for a very, very long time to hear a young pianist who combined a first rate technique, a probing intellect, an instinctive grasp for the feel of the music, and taste. Two out of four yields favorable reviews; three out of four gets wild, stand-on-the-chairs-and-yell raves, and four out of four engenders a stunned silence born of awe. The reviewer wants to be dispassionate; the music lover wants to sit there slack-jawed in amazement. It is hard not to fall in love when confronted with such playing, and it is nearly impossible not to wish it to be so. The reviewer wants to be certain what what he heard was in fact what was played; the music lover wants to believe - to wish - that he has heard greatness or, at the very least, the potential for greatness. I am not prepared to state flatly that Severin von Eckardstein will be a superstar of the piano. I am prepared to tell you that on the evidence of this evening's concert, he has a greater potential to achieve it then anyone I have heard in years. Did I mention that he is thin, very tall, has hands as large as catcher's mitts, and is quite handsome? He is also young enough to be my son.

At this evening's concert at Sprague Hall at Yale (part of the 2007-2008 Horowitz Piano Series at Yale), Severin von Eckardstein, with the daring of youth, opened the program with Franz Schubert's Sonata in A Major (D. 959), a work completed in the last week of Schubert's life. As befits a work composed by a man who knew his end was very near, it seems overstuffed with ideas, some of them fully explored, many less so. Schubert did not have time for editing, and as a result the work does ramble. A performer approaching this work needs a few things that are in short supply these days: Relentless focus, a first rate lyrical sense, the ability to illuminate the dead ends and the skill to move on from them when Schubert's attention/skill flagged, exceedingly clean articulation and a steadfast refusal to accent the piece for cheap effect. In that von Eckardstein tends to pace the music just a hair on the fast side (which, given his touch and his technical prowess is not a problem), the need for articulation was paramount, and in this he was aided by Sprague Hall's crystal clear acoustics. In a hall with a "warmer" sound this probably would have been a muddle.

Von Eckardstein took a cerebral approach to this sonata, keeping the heart-on-sleeve emotion roiling just below the surface, and when it broke out it did so with full force. It cooed, it caressed, and then it exploded. It was a very good thing that this was the only work performed before the intermission, as the audience needed the interval to recover its wits.

The second half opened with Franz Liszt's Sonetto 123 del Petrarca from Années de Pélerinage. Von Eckardstein took it slowly and with the utmost restraint, producing an effect that was haunting. After the briefest of pauses he launched immediately into Liszt's Ballade No. 2. Of this work Sacheverell Sitwell, with understatement befitting a Soviet Deputy Minister of Propaganda, said that it is "...a really magnificent thing not to be confused by its title with the ballades of Chopin, for they could not be more different. It is less passionate but more full-blooded, concerned as it were less with personal suffering than with great happenings on the epical scale, barbarian invasions, cities in flames - tragedies of public, more than private import." Restraint? Forget it. The contrast with the introspective Petrarch Sonata could not have been greater. This was music let loose with a torrent of notes that had the impact of a cannon shot off in the room next door. It was Liszt at his gaudy, heaven-storming best, but wonder to behold it was devoid of vulgarity or cheap effects.

The final work on the program was Beethoven's Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 ("Appassionata"). This was, withal, every bit a young man's Appassionata. The first movement Allegro assai was taken at a furious clip, the propulsion seeming to come from the gonads rather than the intellect. What it lacked in neatness it more than made up for in glandular thrill. The second movement Andante con moto - attacca was played with a sense of calm so vast that it seemed almost chaste. It was a languid, slowly building caress, a kissed ear lobe or a nibbled finger when you fully expected a tongue in the ear. You simply did not want it to end. The Finale was breathtakingly fast, producing a sense not so much of music being made as lava being churned (to steal Jim Sjveda's brilliant phrase). The first encore was a Fairy Tale of Nicolai Medtner, the second encore - a High Romantic work, may have been Rachmaninoff...but maybe it wasn't.

As the financial hucksters are fond of reminding us that past performance is no guarantee of future results, a storied career cannot be predicted based upon one concert given before the pianist's thirtieth birthday. What I can tell you was that I walked into Sprague Hall expecting to hear yet another cookie-cutter pianist with great fingers, few brains and no taste... and I walked out stunned to realize that Severin von Eckardstein has the goods. The reviewer says "Let's hold the evaluation until we hear more of him." The music lover is a bit less circumspect. Hats off gentlemen, a genius!