Fanfare Magazine

Phillip Kawin, Gerard Schwarz and the Russian National Orchestra

My last review of Phillip Kawin’s work (40:3) praised Kawin’s “subtlety, maturity, individuality, and musicality.” I have much the same reaction to his playing of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. He makes one tasteful, sensitive choice after another throughout his performance of the piece. And while he is hardly self-effacing as a soloist (just note the boldness with which he phrases the third movement’s first theme), he is confident enough to allow the piano at times to color rather than dominate the orchestral sound. The second movement, for example, takes on a concertato feel during the central section. Yes, the piano has a series of swift arpeggios throughout this section, but the orchestra has a series of wind solos for which the piano should function as support. Kawin engages in a genuine dialogue with these other instruments, here and elsewhere throughout the concerto.

Consider also the cadenza to the first movement. The first half of it can often sound like a perfunctory series of modulations. Many pianists barrel through it—perhaps to make it sound like the dazzling showstopper one generally expects a cadenza to be, perhaps simply to get it over with and move on to the more readily interpretable material based on the movement’s second theme. Kawin, instead, takes a grand approach. He broadens the chordal material and allows the consequent arpeggios to act as ricocheting aftereffects of these massive pronouncements. The multiple transpositions of the concerto’s primary motif take on a sense of direction, and the final statement in D Major feels like a moment of arrival. As the cadenza reaches its fiery conclusion, Kawin accelerates as expected, but ultimately intensifies the tension by broadening the tempo at the very end. Such moments are emblematic of Kawin’s approach: he has a clear, large-scale sense of the structure of the music he plays, of the emotional arrival and departure points, and of the direction needed to reach them. This causes him to make subtly different choices than less penetrating interpreters make, while remaining within the boundaries of standard interpretative practice.

Gerard Schwarz’s conducting is characteristically warm and colorful. Orchestral accents are sharply defined, lyrical passages are given a generous dynamic range, and rubato is expressive yet dignified. My only (minor) qualm about this performance is the tempo of the third movement, which is just slightly slower than I find ideal, feeling a bit like a fast 4 rather than a hectic 2. However, this tempo has the advantage of imparting an idyllic quality to the primary theme when it appears in the major mode before the coda, and of allowing the coda to be sprightly rather than raucous.

One of the joys of a video performance is the opportunity for close-ups and angles of sight that are unavailable from an audience seat. There are a generous number of close shots of individual instrumentalists during orchestral passages, along with many opportunities to observe Kawin’s playing from a finger-level perspective as well as from the standard full-profile audience perspective. Unsurprisingly, Kawin is a dignified, calm presence at the piano: not overactive in physical movements, not showy in facial expression. His face reflects the music from time to time, especially in lyrical passages, and he occasionally throws his hand up from the keys after a powerful chord, but my primary impression of him is of a performer utterly focused on the music he is creating. The audio and video fall out of synchronization in the last few minutes of the first movement, with the sound coming before the picture by about a 16th note, but synchronization is accurate throughout the second and third movements. This is a performance well worth adding to your library.

Myron Silberstein

Copyright © 2020 by Fanfare Inc.

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