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RECITAL REVIEW
Music at Oakmont / Thursday, February 11, 2016
Joel Fan, piano

Pianist Joel Fan

FAN RETURNS TO OAKMONT IN AN ECLECTIC RECITAL

by Terry McNeill
Thursday, February 11, 2016

New York-based pianist Joel Fan hasn’t been a stranger to Sonoma County, having played in both the Concerts Grand and Music at Oakmont venues. February 11 he returned to Oakmont’s Berger Auditorium in an eclectic and often electric recital before 200.

Beginning with Ginastera’s first Sonata Op. 22, Mr. Fan gave the popular work from 1952 a pulsating reading that stressed the contrasting textures and meters. In the Presto double octaves didn’t fail him, and there was palpable mystery and lovely soft playing in the Adagio molto. Even here there is a continual restless quality that the pianist portrayed. In the Ruvido ed ostinato finale Mr. Fan managed the toccata-like effects without pounding, the clarity of the chords and skips admirable. The composer wrote it with a distinct nod to Prokofiev’s famous Precipitato movement from his Seventh Sonata of 1943.

It was a reading that brought out the needed motor excitement of Ginastera’s piano writing (as in the “Danza del Gaucho Matrero” from the earlier Danzas Argentinas), and Mr. Fan spoke to the audience reflecting on his Ginastera interest and the centenary of the composer’s birth.

Recently Mr. Fan toured China and brought to the Berger stage three fetching works from the trip, Autumn Moon Over the Still Lake, Liuyang River and Plum Blossom. All were audience favorites. The tranquil “Autumn” featured murmuring arpeggios and subtle pedal effects, and “River” was a jaunty exploration of colorful harmonic progressions, faintly Ravel-like. There were lots of notes and a movie-music background effect, aural pleasure in every phrase.

Jianzhong Wang’s “Plum” was the most complex of the three, exploring more the bass register of the piano and featuring pedal point, counterpoint in the variations and little bursts of energy. Mr. Fan played them sui generis. These not-recent works are wholly conservative harmonically but no less charming for it. An intriguing and happily satisfying program choice by Mr. Fan.

Following intermission Liszt’s B Minor Sonata was played, a seminal 19th century romantic work that is the center of any recital where at appears. A good performance should clock in at about 30 minutes, giving
breathing space for the chorale and lyrical segments in the midst of the famous Presto octave passages and massive fistfuls of chords. The pianist never faltered in the Sonata’s formidable technical demands, but the 26-minute performance duration (a la Argerich) disclosed some important shortcomings.

This afternoon Mr. Fan mounted a conception of the 1853 one-movement Sonata that featured quick phrases, clarity in passagework, silvery octaves and clean fast trills. This approach has many admirable facets, as it moves the often dense interior writing into distinct small sections, illuminating the repeated left-hand motives and unifying what to some is a sprawling structure. The pianist’s dry and then half-pedal runs were precise and often sparkling, and the fermata before the coda was long and put a cap on the preceding and powerful octave-laden drama.

Missing in the performance was a critical part of Liszt’s genius, that of majesty. Again and again the score unfolded in hurried phrase endings and transitions, lack of rubato in voice leading and musical nobility that can come with reveling in the instrument’s sonority, and for many the B Minor Sonata’s heroism and religious underpinnings. An example of these omissions would be the perdendosi and triple piano 14-bar section before the beginning of the fugue, where Mr. Fan’s mundane playing overlooked the haunting character of the sublime and anticipatory writing.

Two encores were offered to solid but not strenuous applause, Piazzolla’s “Flora’s Game” and a popular contemporary Japanese song, “Castle in the Sky.” Both were played compellingly, the first a captivating seven-minute tango that could also have come from Villa-Lobos or Ginastera. Piazzolla has a lock on beguiling classical music milango tangos, reminding venerable Oakmont listeners of pianist Gila Goldstein’s “Oblivion” tango performance on the same stage.

The second (“Castle”) was the pianist’s own transcription with a more interesting harmonic structure, beautifully played with luminous tone and deft phrasing.

Joel Fan’s artistry has matured in many ways since appearing at Oakmont in 2011, and his playing now is more polished and sure footed. And he is a master programmer, balancing the new, old, foreign, familiar and conventional in consummately impressive parts.