Only the shallow, distant balcony of the 500-seat Crawford Hall on the North Carolina School of the Arts campus was empty for the January 18 recital by the internationally renowned pianist Claude Frank, the celebrated Beethoven interpreter who held the attention of a discriminating audience with a program of choice rarities by Bach, Schubert and Brahms. In the conclusion to Frank’s biography in the New Grove I, Michael Steinberg wrote that “his playing of Mozart, Beethoven. Schubert and Brahms is outstanding for its warmth, its intellectual and musical strength and for a penetrating structural intelligence.” Those words could serve as a précis for the many Frank concerts that I have been privileged to hear and for his NCSA recital in particular.

Kenneth Cooper, in the notes to his harpsichord recording, writes that when J.S. Bach composed his Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, S.903, the concept of fantasia was “at a cross roads, ha(ving) been an elaborate intellectual artifice displaying intricate contrapuntal skill.” Bach and his son Carl Philipp Emanuel helped to create a new genre that anticipated the modern sense of the term – “works in which the whim of emotion rather than logic held sway.” Having never heard the work played on anything but a harpsichord, it took a few moments to adjust to Frank’s use of the modern piano’s full dynamic range and rich sonority – there was no tinkling imitation of old instruments here! The crystalline clarity of various lines of the fantasy were a delight as they were woven in patterns that led to a long sustained note before the beautifully-voiced fugue. The richness of the sonority and the soaring fortes that were seemingly tossed off by the 77-year-old musician were amazing, as was the high level of technical finish.

In the BBC Guide to Schubert Piano Sonatas, Philip Radcliffe points out that one of facets of the composer’s musical personality, “a kind of mysterious serenity,” finds sustained expression in the Sonata in G, D.894, the last before the final three masterpieces. Despite the unusually slow tempo designated, Frank was able to create a sense of forward motion so the piece never seemed to drag. The hesitant opening melody was lovely. The palette of sound ranged from a brilliant treble to a deep resonant bass. The slow movement was a wonderful example of Schubert’s skill in presenting a single rhythmic figure in totally different guises. The minuet had an irresistible rhythm, and a striking little two-bar phrase led into a delectable trio in which the “tune is given to an inner part, and the second half modulates quietly and beautifully to a remote key.” Frank perfectly brought out the rustic quality of the finale’s Allegretto, with its frequent return and treatment of the opening melody with varied phrase lengths and remote keys.

The concert ended with Brahms’s monumental Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5. Throughout, Frank displayed extraordinary command of the musical line and deep rich sonority. The rapid crossed hands in the first movement would have been worthy of Scartlatti or Soler but were unexpected in Brahms. The slow movement was played with great warmth and delicacy. The scherzo was dashing and vigorous with a swaggering drive. A short retrospective and sonorous intermezzo led directly to the finale, marked Allegro moderato ma rubato, in which the depth of Frank’s long experience found fruition in the seeming freedom of his interpretation.

For fans of Tolkien and geneaology who like lists, Frank studied off and on for a decade with Artur Schnabel who had studied with Theodor Leschetizsky who had studied with Carl Czerny who had studied with Beethoven. Thus has the Viennese Classical tradition been passed down through the generations.

Frank was a frequent Triangle visitor in the 1980s, when he played most of the Beethoven piano concertos with the Duke University Symphony and gave several mostly-classical-period recitals as part of the Gina Bachauer Memorial Concert Series. My only caveat about the January 18 recital concerns extraneous noise. Since I last heard Frank in the mid-1980s, he has acquired a Glenn Gould-like assemblage of whistling under the breath and singing along with the keyboard music that clearly bothered some listeners. This was a small but noticeable price to be paid for the incredible depth of his musicianship.

[Lightly edited 1/21/03.]