Sunday, February 1, 2015

Pianist Michael Tsalka performs at the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv

Michael Tsalka (photo:Rami Tsalka)
The last of a series of concerts keyboard artist Michael Tsalka has just performed in Israel was a piano recital at the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv, on January 20th 2015. The first half of the concert consisted of works seldom (or perhaps never) performed on the local concert stage, a major reason being that some have been extracted from archives, a performing edition then assembled by him and musicologist Angelica Minero Escobar. Tsalka briefly introduced the works on the program. Born in Tel Aviv, Dr. Tsalka is known for his wide range of repertoire which he plays on all manner of historical keyboard instruments, often performing works of a composer on an instrument of the composer's time. The works at this concert were all played on the modern piano.

The program opened with Daniel Gottlob Türk’s (1756-1813) Sonata in a-minor, appearing on Tsalka’s CD “Six Keyboard Sonatas for Connoisseurs”(1789); he recorded them on harpsichord, clavichord, tangent piano, spinet and piano at the University of South Dakota’s National Music Museum. Türk, an important keyboard pedagogue, wrote the most influential keyboard tutor of his day. Tsalka’s playing of the a-minor Sonata - the intimate moments, charm, delicacy of touch and clean pedaling, as well as the intensity of the “Allegro di molto con fuoco” third movement, all spoken in the accessible, direct language of the Classical style - was more than pleasurable.

Another neglected Classical-early-Romantic composer, in music history books, on the concert platform and in the recording studio is Czech composer Johann Baptist Waňhal (1739-1813), court composer, writer of much sacred music, symphonies, chamber music and smaller pieces for entertainment or pedagogical purposes, who eventually became a freelance composer, teacher and performer and one of Vienna’s most important and influential musical figures. In 2013, Michael Tsalka recorded two sets of the composer’s three sets of Keyboard Capriccios, works composed in the 1780s. At the recital, we heard the Capriccio in E-flat major Op.36, a work indicative of the richness of musical expression at the keyboard, as expressed through the piano. The artist presented each texture, mood and gesture of the music, from gently nostalgic to moments of joyful energy, all presented with a sense of well-being and through the focus of dynamic change, variety and the occasional harmonic surprise, so vital to the style and thinking of the time.

I would imagine that, for much of the audience attending this recital, hearing a work of German composer Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) was a first. Ries, a fine pianist, whose oeuvre includes symphonies, piano concertos, a violin concerto, 26 string quartets and works of other genres, was Beethoven’s assistant and copyist, eventually establishing himself as an interpreter of Beethoven’s music. Beethoven was very positive in what he had to say about Ries’ compositions and pianistic ability, although he was known to have said that Ries “imitates me too greatly”. Sadly, Ries remains better known today as having been Beethoven’s pupil and biographer than for his own career, despite the fact that he ranked among the greatest pianist-composers of his day. Like most of his contemporaries, Ries was a prolific composer of variations, probably intended for the experienced amateur player. His Variations on a French March in F major show the influence of his teacher, but they also allow for a clear glimpse into the developing Romantic coloring and style. Tsalka’s playing presented the course of the march itself and the variations themselves, his playing poetic, at times intense, as he gave the piece a personal and exhilarating reading, yet never overstepping the piece’s intentions and sound world.

Luigi Cherubini’s (1760-1842) greatness lies in his operas and sacred music and not in his piano music. His involvement in the keyboard, however, is obvious in that he was one of the first composers to write for the mechanism of the fortepiano, the dexterity demanded to play it and the playfulness it offered. Michael Tzalka’s spontaneous, richly presented performance of Cherubini’s Fantasia for piano (or organ) in C-major reflected the influence of Baroque style on the composer’s thinking, both texturally and harmonically. I would be curious to hear Tsalka perform this work on fortepiano.

Following small-scale all-but-unknown pieces, Michael Tsalka chose to end his Tel Aviv recital with Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Sonata in b-flat major D960, the composer’s last sonata, the third written in quick succession in 1828, two months prior to his death. The last two years of Schubert’s life saw him increasingly more occupied on the darker side of the human soul and with a deeper sense of the “beyond”. This work goes beyond the genre of entertainment in its intimate searching; it is a tall order for both pianist and listener. Tsalka’s reading of it, however, brought out the meditative, inward-looking mood of the work, shaded with dreamy lyricism, devoid of anger or bitterness. His playing is lush and singing, intense and vulnerable and articulate in the layering of Schubert’s text, save for a few rough edges in the process of his own page-turning. The strength of the artist’s performance of this mammoth work was his sense of freedom and expression of Schubert’s humility in a work so often over-layered by pianists with subjective anger and rancor.

For his encore, Michael Tsalka took leave of Schubert's musings on death to send the audience off with the kindliness of what is probably Mozart's own KV137 piano arrangement of the variations of his Clarinet Quintet, played crisply, with charm, pleasing contrasts and poise.

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