The ninth annual Piano on the Rocks International Festival ran from April 26 through 28 at the Verde Valley School, where festival founder Sandrine Erdely-Sayo was joined by pianists Madeleine Hehn, James Palmer and Cynthia Raim and mezzo-soprano Sonja Bruzauskas.

Themed as an homage to French composer Gabriel Faure [1845—1924], this year’s festival was also dedicated to the memory of the late Peter Van Mastrigt, a local organist and piano tuner who maintained the festival’s instruments, who died Feb. 20 at age 81.

“We cannot have a world or country functioning without good music,” Erdely-Sayo reminded the audience.

Opening Music

All four pianists combined forces to start the weekend off with Mack Wilberg’s fantasy on themes from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.” Beginning as fast and fun play with the famous opening theme, it turned interrogatory from there. The habanera emerged slowly and pessimistically with a recurrent discord at just the spot to grab the listener’s attention before diminishing into delicacy and returning to tumble over itself as the tempo and intensity rose to an absolutely blistering finish.

Since this was a Faure festival, Erdely-Sayo took on the composer’s “Theme and Variations,” Op. 73, which consists of one theme and 11 variations. “The difficulty is to create a whole,” Erdely-Sayo said. The theme itself was strenuous and confronting; the variations were introspective, frenetic, somber, forced to gaiety, but never outright sad, and showed off the high point of development of Romantic piano music before the modernists came along. As for the pianist, Erdely-Sayo is an artist who shows such engagement with her work that at times the music seems to emanate from her rather than her instrument.

After the Faure died away, Bruzauskas joined Erdely-Sayo on stage for a selection of five songs from Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise.” She kept firm control of the demanding low notes in “Gute Nacht” — which, if the composer intended it as a farewell to love denied, was not without a recurrent note of hope contradicting the mood of the piano. “Die Wetterfahne” was more dramatic and ominous with an unexpected and sarcastic finish; “Gefror’ne Tranen” blew hot and cold. In “Erstarrung,” Bruzauskas did a very vivid job of vocally acting the role of the alarmed and deprived heroine with Erdely-Sayo racing along behind her, while in “Der Lindenbaum,” the tone shifted between pastoral, caressing and seductive on the one hand and dark and apprehensive on the other, building up a conversation of ideas.

Intermission was preceded by an addition not on the program, an eighthanded rendition of “Over the Rainbow” in tribute to Van Mastrigt, as ErdelySayo remembered that he had always played it for her when he came over to tune her piano. The four pianists gave it a marvelous depth of texture behind the simple and soaring vocal line.


Erdely-Sayo and Palmer picked the show up after a break with a four-handed rendition of “El Choclo,” a fun, animated piano tango with Erdely-Sayo frisking around the foundation that Palmer provided.

Hehn presented her own setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” inspired by Faure’s works. While there appeared to be little relation between the musical themes and the emotional content of the text, Faure and Dickinson having quite different approaches, Hehn captured Faure’s style very effectively, and her detailed elaboration gave Bruzauskas a strong opportunity to display the expressiveness and power of her voice.

Palmer then gave his first solo performance of the festival with Faure’s Nocturne No. 13 in B Minor. Although this is a sleepy piece, he seemed to find it entrancing and succeeded in infusing it with his own animation until its intensity built sufficiently for him to get lost in it and enjoy its growing complexity with crisp, clean runs.

The composer Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” a homage to his teacher Faure and those of his friends who died in World War I, was Raim’s choice for the afternoon. In the sparkling, springy prelude, Raim showed considerable delicacy in blending the rapid-fire notes just enough and not too much as the music rejected despair and looked forward to the sunshine of a new day. This optimism did not last. The fugue was slow and probing and the forlane slightly more upbeat but still resigned, although the balance shifted throughout. The rigaudon started bold, fast and assertive before descending into a second section that was all depression, while the ending toccata was a frenzied disorganization in which the flowery and the strident warred. Raim is usually such a subdued pianist that her volume at times strikes the audience with unexpected effect, and by the final movement, she was almost writhing over the keyboard with passion as its moods merged and climaxed.

Finally, all four performers rejoined each other to perform the waltz from Charles Gounod’s opera “Faust,” reduced for two pianos and eight hands. It was an ideal choice to end the evening, a giddy, thoroughly humorous interaction that was teasing when it was not laughing and clear and articulate throughout.

Second Day

The festival’s finest moment came at the start of the second day, which Palmer began with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Sonata in A-Flat Major, Hob. XVI:46. Playing from memory, with a confident, even cheeky, touch, he delivered an exquisite interpretation of an already delightful work, melodious, happy and technically brilliant. A jokey allegro was followed by a relaxed and comfortable adagio and a flashing presto that incidentally begged for orchestration as a full concerto. It was a perfect pairing of performer and programming, in which the successful union of the two elements created a transcendent moment capturing the listeners within the music and leaving them briefly unconscious of the passage of time. In his performance, Palmer revealed himself as one of those artists who can make classical music such great fun.

Hehn followed the Haydn with Faure’s Nocturne No. 2 in B Major. This started as fairy music and then turned into the fairies being chased through the wood by goblins. Some of the work’s passages required her to play with crossed hands, and Hehn performed these with impressive speed and accuracy, creating a rich flood of music and a luxuriant blending of sound.

Bruzauskas and Erdely-Sayo then joined forces once more for Faure’s song cycle “Cinq mélodies ‘de Venise’,” which set the text of five poems by Paul Verlaine. “Mandoline” mated whimsical piano playing to coy lyrics and vocals. “En Sourdine” had a tenderness to it, albeit accompanied by an emergent sense that all was not well, that Bruzauskas rendered as if it were an embrace. In “Green,” the piano sounded the arrival of spring, but the singer sounded quite alarmed by such a development. Conversely, piano and voice united in “A Clymene” to convey a gradual, sensual abandonment that carried over into “C’est l’extase langoureuse,” where the singer seemed a shade less willing.

Next, Raim presented three of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas — only three, as the composer wrote 555 during his career, which take a bit of time to play through.

Her first choice, in D major, included a sprightly A section with numerous half-executed changes of mood implying an imminent shift to a less jaunty B section, which turned out not to have the same mood that the foregoing material implied before ending as happily and assertively as it had begun. The second sonata, in A minor, commenced with stiff, formal Bachlike bars that gave way to lighter, brightly-colored harmonies and modulation of a common theme. Raim rounded out the trio with another of Scarlatti’s D major sonatas full of dizzying cadences that she played with great fire and effective dynamic contrast. This sonata was rather like an uncontrollably merry pupil being repeatedly set to a rigid task, only to ignore it and fly off improvising.

The second day’s program ended with Erdely-Sayo’s rendition of Robert Schumann’s “Fantasiestucke,” or “fantasy pieces,” Op. 12. “Des Abends” was a delicate little thing with a hint of apprehension, played with devotion. The vigorous, dominating rhythms alternating with softer moments of “Aufschwung” yielded to the ambiguous moodiness of “Warum?” — literally, “why?” in German. “Grillen,” on the other hand, reminded one of a jolly if disorganized uncle, with a great melodic structure and deep, intense harmonies. “In der Nacht” was a virtuoistic ramble, “Fabel” couldn’t decide whether to be bubbly and playful or sleepy and “Traumes-Wirren” sent insistent whirlwinds of notes flying about the hall as Erdely-Sayo’s fingers sped across the keyboard. “Ende vom Lied” — “the end of the song” took itself very seriously, as it was dramatic and mostly ponderous, yet the composer’s eventual conclusion felt oddly subdued.

The final day of the festival concluded with works by Faure, Franz Lehar, Ravel, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin and Richard Strauss.

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