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Recital
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Recital
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REVIEW
San Francisco International Piano Festival / Friday, August 20, 2021
Nicholas Phillips, piano

Nicholas Phillips Playing Griffes Aug. 20

HARMONIC COMPLEXITY IN PHILLIPS' ALL-GRIFFES RECITAL

by Terry McNeill
Friday, August 20, 2021

Charles Griffes’ piano music is similar to that of Busoni, Reger and even Poulenc, in that there is a sporadic flourish of interest with concerts and scholarly work, then a quick fade into another long period of obscurity.

So, it was a delight to have an all-Griffes recital August 20 on the San Francisco International Piano Festival’s virtual series, played by Wisconsin-based pianist Nicholas Phillips. Video was effectively directed and the audio pristine, a bright piano sound making the composer’s lush harmonies gayly vivid and the fortes from the instrument hefty.

Mr. Phillips played from score throughout and the three works he chose over 52 minutes often featured judicious tempos. The music at times unfolded without sufficient urgency, something needed with most Griffes, but on balance the compositions sounded convincing enough with this approach.

The composer’s monumental Sonata wasn’t programmed, but Mr. Phillip’s wisely chose the best remaining Griffes works, beginning with the Op. 7 Roman Sketches. He played each of the four splendidly, beginning with the popular White Peacock’s shimmering legato chords and capturing the mystery of Nightfall. Novel clarity was heard in the The Fountain of the Aqua Paola, Mr. Phillips letting air into the interpretation with the final chords perfectly phrased. Clouds had the requisite complex atmospheric character, the left-hand Ostinatos sounding a melancholy impression of aerial sights.

A highlight of the recital was the playing in The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Kahn, originally for orchestra and here in the 1912 solo piano version. Mr. Phillips was in no hurry here and several Fermatas were quite extended, and he artfully juxtaposed the exoticism of the work with it wild frenetic sections. His control of layered harmonies was lovely, and this music needed this pianist’s imagination and deft touch. Kahn is such a great work, unique at the time of composition along with Sorabji, late Scriabin and Debussy.

Griffes’ three Fantasy Pieces (Op. 6) closed the program, each played with distinct individual shape. The Barcarolle unfolded in playing alien to the Barcarolles of Fauré and Chopin, the artist favoring delicacy at the expense of a more meandering water experience. The playing in the Nocturne was properly poetic, and the Scherzo’s bravura properly virtuosic.

Mr. Phillips has an obvious affinity for this “hot house” music, perhaps an acquired taste for some but for me always an auspicious experience. His elegant performance surely won new admirers to Griffes sonic wizardry.