Henry Kramer‘s recital at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Durham was originally announced to be on February 6. Due to the pandemic, that date had to be changed not once, but four times. These changes pushed the date later into the year, when university students have left for their summer breaks, thus making the audience for this Steinway Artist’s program smaller than it normally should and would have been. Those in attendance were treated to an intriguingly well-crafted program replete with internal cross-relations not necessarily apparent to the eye:

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata in E, Op. 109
Alberto Ginastera: Danzas Argentinas, Op. 2
William Grant Still: Three Visions
Hannah Lash: “Caspar PM”
Maurice Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin

A regular feature of the St. Stephen’s concert series is the pre-concert talks by the performer. In addition to Joseph Kitchen’s in-depth, informative and well-written program notes, these talks give the audience opportunity to hear the performer’s insights in the music and to enter into dialogue with the artist. As example, when discussing “Summerland,” the second of Still’s Three Visions, Kramer explained his time as a university teacher in Georgia, experiencing the languid summer atmosphere as influencing his interpretation of this music.

Kramer’s Beethoven performance was exemplary. From the curiously brief exposition of the opening movement and its schizophrenic alternations between Vivace and Adagio espressivo, to the Prestissimo E minor (!) second movement and its hell-bent coda, Kramer’s musicianship and superb technique led to the concluding movement, “Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung” (“Singing, with deepest feeling”). This movement, a theme-and-variations form unusual for a piano sonata, reveals Beethoven at his most introspective. Indeed, it may be related in spirituality to Beethoven’s labeling a passage in the Agnus Dei of his Missa Solemnis a “Prayer for inward and outward peace” (“Bitte um innern und äussern Frieden”). (Beethoven was composing the Missa at the same time as this Op. 109 sonata.) Kramer’s reading of the final movement’s chorale-like theme, repeated as the sonata’s conclusion, was indeed “with deepest feeling.” His hands lingered on the keys as the quiet final chord reminded us that there is yet beauty in this world.

Next came Ginastera’s early Argentine Dances: “Dance of the old herdsman,” “Dance of the pretty girl,” and “Dance of the cunning gaucho” (or “outlaw cowboy”). Ginastera himself described this work:

When I composed my Danzas Argentinas for piano in 1937, “Bartók’s influence was present. My ‘imaginary folklore’ begins there, with polytonal harmonization, its strong, marked rhythms – the Bartókian feverish excitement; – all within a total pianism where the spirit of a national music is recreated.

Nowhere was this “feverish excitement” realized than in the concluding movement, its 6/8 rhythmic figures speeding by as Kramer took Ginastera’s directions literally: “Furiosamente ritmico ed energico” (“furiously rhythmic and energetic”) at the beginning and selvaggio ffff/sfff (“wild, as loud as possible”) for the last five-bar conclusion. Kramer gave this music the bravissima performance it deserves. With no need for reflection, the audience returned energetic applause to conclude the concert’s first half.

With William Grant Still’s Three Visions, the program’s second half begun where the first half had left off, with the thundering hoofbeats of “Dark Horsemen,” those of the fabled Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. “Summerland” was lullaby-like, impressionably peaceful; “Radiant Pinnacle” allowed Kramer to traverse the Spiritualistic journey through difficulties to the stars. Kramer’s was a definitive reading of this too-often neglected American work.

Another American work followed, but this time a new work from a living composer, Hannah Lash. Commissioned by Mr. Kramer, Lash’s work is titled “Caspar PM” (quirky titles being a specialty of the composer). This ‘inside joke’ refers to composer Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, the music which inspired it.

“Caspar PM” is a c. 10-minute work in perpetual motion, filled with Ravel-evoking arpeggios and almost-improvisatory parallel triads with filigree accompaniment. Its harmonic wanderings eventually came to rest in quiet descending octaves, from which Kramer moved seamlessly to the recital’s concluding work, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. This six-movement suite, Ravel’s homage to traditional musical forms (Prelude, Fugue, Forlane, Rigaudon, Menuet, and Toccata) was perfectly played. Kramer’s cross-hand pyrotechnics were magisterial as he made this music everything that Ravel could have wished.

Kramer is not overly demonstrative at the keyboard, although a hand will sometimes be raised 15″ off the keys after a percussive attack. He lets the music speak for itself, through himself. I hope to hear his artistry again.

This was a fine ending to St. Stephen’s 2021-2022 season. As we look forward to a new season unedited by Covid-19, we appreciate Joseph Kitchen’s program notes, always scholarly and informative. Also worthy of note was this simple three-word phrase from the program’s cover: “Henry Kramer, pianist.” Note “pianist” (which Kramer is), not “piano” (which Kramer is not). While singers are properly identified as “(name), soprano,” instrumentalists are not properly named as their instruments. One who plays the violin is a violinist, not a violin. Reversing the word order, we would say “Pianist Henry Kramer,” not “Piano Henry Kramer.” Thanks for getting that appositive comma correctly, St. Stephen’s!