Psst! Wanna hear a fabulous pianist, have a good time, and learn something, all at once? Look for the next area performance of Crazy Anatoly and get thyself to it! The name is Anatoly Larkin. He grew up in Russia and then trained here in the States. He's bilingual, for sure. He's also ambidextrous, or so it seems. He's fabulously talented. And he's refreshingly outrageous, to the point of making one absolutely certain he slept through those concert etiquette/stage deportment classes in Russia or the University of Minnesota or where ever else he's trained. (There was no bio in the program.) Indeed, his solo recital in Meredith's Carswell Recital Hall on Monday evening must rank among the wildest concerts this listener has ever attended. It was also one of the most rewarding, and that's no joke. Did I say he also works for a living, and not as a pianist? And did I mention that he claimed he hadn't played for a while before his recent program? No, I think I overlooked that — but there was nothing in his playing that betrayed the slightest signs of keyboard neglect (to coin a quasi-psychological phrase) or weakness.
So what did he do? Well, he finally showed up some time after 8 o'clock and immediately engaged the audience in a little game of make-believe, using an imaginary CD remote control to click through a series of snatches of piano pieces before settling on the Fugue in D-Sharp Minor, S.853, from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. He then sang* (yes) and (concurrently) played two canons from The Musical Offering, S.1079, and carried on about Beethoven's "Les Adieux" Sonata before sailing through that (at one point peering off into the distance, as if anticipating the joyous return of the work's hero...). There followed a smattering of form-and-analysis and then an étude (Op. 10/1) by Chopin that was to have led into Leopold Godowsky's harmonic re-composition of it, but this bit of musicological comparison was interrupted by a cell-phone call (imaginary, of course) from Old Stoneface (Sergei Rachmaninov), who apparently demanded the inclusion of his Elegie in E-Flat Minor, Op. 3/1, before Godowsky's left-hand knuckle-buster. (It may be worth noting — or maybe not... — that this Elegie is the piece that precedes The Prelude — the one in C-Sharp Minor — in this little collection of five works called Morceau de fantaisie.) Larkin then played Berg's Sonata.
Now this was quite a bit of programming wizardry. The sequence was basically chronological, and the progression of styles and pieces would have enlightened even the boulder from which Old Stoneface's visage was (Rushmore-like) carved. The bottom line was that the Berg, that Second Viennese School master's first published work (as Larkin told us), emerged as part of a musical continuum that permitted it to speak with great lyrical eloquence, rather than coming across as a forbidding ordeal to be suffered through.
Larkin could have stopped here and his several points would have been made, but there was then an intermission during which the artist and his Meredith minders seem to have lost all sense of time. Folks wandered in and out of the hall, eyeing and then starting to devour the goodies (punch and Oreos, among other things) set up for the post-concert reception. From around the corner, where the artist was, came ripples of Russian chatter in various vocal ranges. Some of us became concerned that they'd have no cookies when the show was over. Finally, the concert resumed....
Post-1950 material made up the rest of the program. There was a surprisingly vehement selection by Messiaen, dedicated to (and surely inspired by) Papua New Guinea. John Cage's "4'33" received a reverent albeit (in this critic's view) unnecessarily rushed reading, a perhaps unforgivable interpretive blunder on Larkin's part, especially given that he used sheet music for the first time during the otherwise triumphant recital. Three relatively short pieces by Asheville-based John Starosta, also played from a score, would be worth hearing again; Larkin made a convincing case for the fascinating albeit moody collection of works called Yellowing I, II, and III. At the end, Larkin offered a "Total Improvisation" that began with the Cage and Starosta music being tossed into the air and went on from there. It involved the piano only somewhat obliquely, but there was a big uproar at the end, given by some of the happiest, most delighted people I've seen at any concert in years.
For the record, he sits on a little bitty stool that reminds me of the one Glenn Gould used or the one Awadagin Pratt told me a few years ago had been lost or stolen from him. This is not to accuse Crazy Anatoly of grand theft or even petit larceny but it's just one more unique aspect of his stage persona.
P.S. There's a 5'35" clip of Larkin playing Starosta's "Static" on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6MmErYk_ag.
*Larkin works for Zenph Studios, where he was involved in the eventual Sony release of a technically-stunning "reperformance" of Glenn Gould's first recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. One of the delights of this new high-tech method of resuscitating great recordings of the past is that they can be delivered anew without surface pops or ticks or any of the intrusive sounds made by performers. I'm convinced that the residue of Gould's humming, stripped from the Goldberg Lp through computer wizardly developed by Zenph Studios' process and left (mercifully) on the cutting-room floor, was swept up by Larkin for creative recycling in those two sung canons rendered on this occasion...