"America's First Lady of the Piano," Ruth Laredo* (http://www.ruthlaredo.com/ [inactive 8/05], paid a visit to Elon University this week that culminated with a recital on October 22 in the lovingly-restored Whitley Auditorium, the former chapel transformed into a recital hall with a gorgeous organ at the rear of the stage, co-sponsored by the University, The Adams Foundation, and The Times-News . She played the equally well-restored 1923 Steinway D, the fruit of the efforts of John Foy Piano Restorations, Inc. (http://www.johnfoypiano.com/ - inactive 4/09), of Greensboro, which she praised, saying she loved the opportunity to play because it "sounds so much better than so many of the ones [she has] to play." The printed program was a bit too bare-bones, with composition dates omitted, which is inappropriate, even though some works were well known.
Laredo opened with four pieces from Robert Schumann's Phantasiestücke , Op. 12: "Des Abends" ("Evening"), "Aufschwung" ("Soaring"), "Warum?" ("Why?"), and "In der Nacht" ("In the Night"). The 8:00 p.m. train timed its passing just right, whistling through after the last note of the first, necessitating a pause and eliciting some chuckles from the artist and applause from an audience that otherwise cooperated perfectly, knowing precisely when and when not to clap. These works made for a graceful entry into the world of magnificent pianism where Laredo led us.
She followed with a superb rendition of the chestnut that Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata No. 23, Op. 57, has become, marking and emphasizing the dramatic contrasts in dynamics. She surrounded the intermission with works by composers with whom she has become particularly closely associated in performance, recordings, and critical praise. Her performance of a group of three works by Alexander Scriabin, whom she claimed as one of her favorite composers, was prefaced by some charming and entertaining comments about the composer, his life, and his styles, three of which were represented by the selections played. She reminded us that he, and not Arnold Schoenberg, wrote the first atonal work. In his youth, Scriabin was referred to as the Russian Chopin, which the "Poème," Op. 32, No. 1, illustrated. The "Guirlandes" ("Garlands"), Op. 73, No. 1, is more disparate and eclectic, and the Sonata No. 10, Op. 70 (in one movement), often called the "Trill Sonata," represents a kind of Russian Impressionism, with portions that sounded veritably Debussy-esque, although it focuses primarily on transcendence and ends in a sort of evaporation into radiance.
Five Preludes by Rachmaninoff were up after the intermission, for whose arrival a passing freight train graciously waited: Op. 32, No. 5 in G; Op. 32, No. 10 in B Minor; Op. 23, No. 4 in D; Op. 32, No. 12 in G-Sharp Minor; and Op. 3, No. 2 in C-Sharp Minor. This was a well-arranged selection of some readily recognized chestnuts and others less frequently played; all were exquisitely realized and nicely nuanced.
Laredo again provided very informative comments about the genesis of the concluding work, Maurice Ravel's own transcription for piano of his "La Valse," It was originally written for orchestra, and intended to be choreographed by Sergei Diaghilev, who, however, rejected the score, and to whom Ravel never again spoke as a result. It was finally choreographed in the 1950s by George Balanchine, for the New York City Ballet, which continues to present it. Ravel's original intent, prior to WW I, was to compose a luxurious work in waltz-tempo entitled "Vienna," celebrating the glories of the city and its luminous culture. The war changed his perspective, however, and he wrote instead a work in which things go awry and the tempos and music crash and burn, suggesting the decline of Western civilization that the war caused. Laredo's magnificent performance brought all of this to brilliant life.
Responding to the disappointingly thin (which - mysteriously in view of the quality of the performance - thinned further at intermission) audience's enthusiastic applause, Laredo graciously brought some peace back into its world by bringing the evening's music full circle and playing as an encore Schumann's "Träumerei," No. 7 of Kinderszenen , Op. 15.
Laredo impressed with her seriousness of playing, at times hunkering down over the keys, striking them with strength and precision, and with her graceful body language, which is totally without flamboyance. She gets so wrapped up in the music, however, that she occasionally forgets herself and taps her heel or stomps her foot which distracts and detracts a bit. She made this warm, sonorous instrument veritably sing and ring throughout the entire evening as she filled the hall with glorious sound. Several final notes continued to ring so long that she chose to silence them rather than allow them to die since the death was clearly going to be too slow. This is probably attributable to the new hammer mechanism that Foy installed, developed by a technician in Martha's Vineyard, MA, and patented as "Precision TouchDesignT" that allows for heavier hammers than have heretofore been possible. Triangle piano music lovers owe it to themselves to pay a visit to this venue to hear for themselves the glories of this instrument. Perhaps Laredo will return so they can hear the glories of her playing as well.
*Note: Mme. Laredo passed away 5/25/05 in her sleep, in New York.