Verve, passion and creative flair

Pianist Harsha Abeyaratne recently gave a solo recital (in aid of Sahanaya) at the Russian Cultural Center — his first in Sri Lanka. The program consisted of pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Debussy, Griffes and Chopin, all of which were performed with great poise and Žlan by this gifted artist, who possesses a doctorate in classical music and is currently Assistant Professor of Music at Marshall University, West Virginia.

His light and breezy touch and fine sense of timing and rhythm came through in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in F minor, from his second book of the Well Tempered Clavier. The rich, poignant flavour imparted to the prelude and touch of humour and rhythmic Žlan to the fugue were a clear illustration of his uncanny ability to delve into subtext and make contact with the composer’s soul — an intuitive gift not every pianist who performs at this level possesses.

His execution of Beethoven’s monumental work — 32 Variations in C minor — was imbued with a clear, transparent and sparkling quality that did full justice to its technically demanding passages and its rich, melodic structures, which gave way from time to time to harmonious arrangements presented in driving scales. I particularly enjoyed his thoughtful, "pastoral" interpretation of variations XII-XVI, where the central theme, which began in C minor, in retold, recast, and remolded C major and the foundation laid for a startling metamorphosis.

Liszt’s Sposalizio, with its haunting melody, powerful climax, and sonorous left-hand accompaniment, is perhaps the most emotionally uplifting piece in Volume 2 of Annees de Pelerinage — the kind of music that Abeyratne revels in, given his passion for tone, colour and poetry. The piece was played with assured technique and controlled emotion and the management of tempo, texture and phrasing, in particular, was superb. As a pianist, Abeyratne possesses a definite poetic inclination, which came through with remarkable clarity in Sposalizio.

But he was at his best when playing the two Debussy preludes, La puerta del vino and Les Sons et les Parfums Tournent dans l’air du Soir, followed by Griffe’s Nightfall (perhaps the most intellectually demanding of the four pieces representing the Roman Sketches). With his close attention to textual detail, his soft and ethereal style, and his astute handling of delicate colours and "layering" sounds, he enabled us to view the works of these two great impressionistic composers in a different light. This was truly a transcendental experience. Thanks to Abeyratne, local audiences discovered the intriguing sound-world of Griffes, with its persistent rhythmic motifs and dark and shadowy emotional configurations. The interpretations given to the above pieces were on the whole refreshingly original and intensely personal, laced with flashes of intuitive brilliance and creative fantasy.

His reading of Chopins’s Fantasie in F minor, where the opening march-like passages evolve through series of modulating arpeggios and progressive chordal interventions into a broadly classical sonata form, was truly inspirational and momentarily transported the audience into the world of surreal imagery. There was great synergism here between keyboard virtuosity and creative energy, and the A flat major conclusion, in particular, was performed with a grand and powerful sweep of the emotions.

The evening’s program also included some excellent jazz improvisations, with a lovely encore, based on a local folk rhythm, to boot. Those who saw Harsha Abeyratne play at this virtuoso recital will remember him as the kind of pianist who performs with a great deal of verve, passion and creative flair, not to mention heartfelt lyricism and poetic imagery.