Pianist Abeyaratne gives stellar performance

New Concord, Ohio – Today’s crop of talented young pianists seem to share a few common traits.

They strive to sound alike; so much so that a bewildered listener struggles to identify one from the other. And they aim to dazzle with a blazing technique. They have one more thing in common: they could learn a thing or two from pianist Harsha Abeyaratne.

Beginning with the first notes of his recital Sunday at Brown Chapel, Muskingum College, Professor Harsha Abeyaratne coaxed a luxurious tone out of the Steinway all afternoon. The program’s opening work, Isaac Albeniz’s Evocacion, set the pace for the recital in an impressive display of tonal control.

With a nod to Mozart on his birthday, Abeyaratne gave a spirited, stylish performance of the Austrian composer’s Sonata in D, K.311. This was a reading in the best spirit of chamber music. The opening movement, Allegro con spirito, was liltingly persuasive, and the Andante was given a poetic performance, thanks to Abeyaratne’s uncanny ability to turn a phrase, earning him the envy of any leading soprano. The Sonata’s final movement was played with the skill and conviction of a concerto soloist.

The usually treacherous ornaments in Mozart’s Sonatas were executed with stunning clarity.

Two Preludes from Opus 32 by Rachmaninoff followed and were treated sensitively. Abeyaratne achieved a hauntingly liturgical sound in the B minor Prelude, enhanced by Brown Chapel’s warm acoustics. Refusing to sound like other pianists known for eccentric interpretations of the popular G-sharp minor Prelude, Harsha Abeyaratne found his own voice, successfully exploiting Rachmaninoff’s lush romantic harmonies while at the same time spinning long musical phrases.

As expected, Abeyaratne’s performance of Liszt’s sentimentally popular Liebestraum revealed an elegant musicianship. It’s no surprise that this work was a particular favorite with the large and cordial audience.

Saving the best for the last, Abeyaratne launched into Cesar Franck’s monumental Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, a complex and difficult score requiring a sympathetic interpreter. Abeyaratne made sense of it all with attention and detail and, as always, by taking care of the piano’s tone.

The Prelude’s rippling chords were magical and harp-like, while the Chorale opened with a stunningly vocal sound. The steady pace of this music was carefully controlled up to and through the climax, where Abeyaratne’s tone was robust without ever losing its shimmering roundness.

Abeyaratne created a brilliant layering effect in the short connecting section between the Chorale and Fugue.

Franck’s Fugue is a dense, complex score which Abeyaratne handled easily, demonstrating a craftsman’s knowledge of its chromaticism and polyphony.

The work’s conclusion is an apotheosis of sorts in which musical ideas presented earlier in the work return to take a bow. Abeyaratne made sense of this monstrously difficult coda, clearly outlining each motive.

The audience gave a well-deserved standing ovation and Abeyaratne offered an encore (Brahm’s Intermezzo, Op. 116, No. 4) which was pure delight.

Harsha Abeyaratne is a mature artist with expressive and interpretive gifts to spare. Muskingum College is fortunate to have him on the faculty, and we in the audience Sunday were fortunate to have shared the afternoon with him.

Guest reviewer, Scott Watkins, a 1980 graduate of Cambridge High School, is an accomplished pianist in his own right and has made music his career. Reach him at www.scottwatkinspianist.com

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