East Carolina University piano faculty member Benjamin Hochman earned an Avery Fisher Career Grant last year, which is presented to talented instrumentalists with great potential for solo careers. In a program at Fletcher Recital Hall, he demonstrated why he is considered a star on the rise. His recital, which spanned four centuries of music, was filled with excitement, finesse, power, and delicacy, and he displayed great energy and control as well.

In some respects, his program was daring. He mixed two large-scale Brahms and Schubert works in with a shorter piece by Bartók, and he introduced the audience to a composition by a contemporary German composer, Jörg Widmann, that combines traditional and avant garde musical styles to interesting if not always accessible effect.  For good measure, he played a brief Bach sarabande as an encore.

Bartók’s Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op. 20, opened the program, blending lively rhythms and occasional folksy melodies with more modern and dissonant scoring. Some sections call for considerable power and speed, and some seem to encompass almost the entire keyboard. Portions of the piece resemble a bundle of nervous energy; other portions provide considerable delicacy and grace. Hochman handled all demands of the score with great skill, never overplaying or underplaying. At times the piece meandered (because of the music, not the soloist), but at other times, Hochman applied the necessary forward thrust to make sense of the tricky rhythms and scoring. The concluding improvisation was a powerful, high-intensity effort.

Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 17 in D (D. 850, Op. 53) and Brahms’ Fantasies, Op. 116, were the heavyweights on the program. The Schubert sonata covers a lot of musical territory, with fast and furious fingering to open the first allegro vivace movement and a lovely lieder-like theme in the second con moto movement. Hochman applied wonderful articulation to the first movement in particular, and his shifts in dynamics were quite well played. In the third scherzo: allegro vivace movement, Hochman demonstrated both steady determination and a sense of flowing musicality. In the final rondo: allegro moderato movement, the music changes moods noticeably, from a march-like opening statement to a feeling of skipping through flowers to a sense of almost threatening menace, and Hochman captured these shifts well. At times, the music sounds as if it could accompany an old silent film in which a beautiful heroine is threatened by a dastardly villain.

The seven sections of Brahms’ Fantasies for piano offer some stark contrasts. The three capriccios are quite emphatic, while the four intermezzos are more moderate. Taken as a whole, these pieces, among the last Brahms wrote, are full and rich, requiring and receiving from Hochman considerable power and energy, along with nuance and feeling. Within some sections, especially the intermezzi, can be found some of Brahms’ loveliest composition for piano. The fourth and sixth sections, both intermezzi in E, were especially nice, with many cross-hand passages in the fourth section. The fifth section, an intermezzo in E-minor, created an impressive buildup with pairs of ascending chords in both hands and some surprisingly modern-sounding harmonies, followed by descending pairs of chords played quite softly. In the capriccios, Hochman played some of the more forceful passages as an energetic swirl, but he never lost the sense of musicality, and he never sacrificed the beauty of the music for sheer thunder.

Six Schubert Reminiscenses, the contemporary piece by Widmann which pays homage to Schubert, was not easy to warm up to, but Hochman certainly gave it his best. Part of the difficulty in processing the music was that the composer occasionally seemed to be unsure of how to end sections of his “reminiscences.” The melody line would wander, seemingly without direction, and then the section would end in mid-phrase (twice, in fact). Another section sounded as if a cat were walking up the keyboard. Several passages were drawn from Schubert’s compositions, and they sounded fine, but it would have been far more interesting to hear Schubert’s melody lines played against different harmonies, instead of against dissonances. In the second section, for instance, the figures at the upper end of the keyboard were quite at odds with the main melody line.  

Nevertheless, Hochman certainly showed his audience that he is a young pianist to watch. As he demonstrated in his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the ECU Symphony in the fall, he plays with passion and great skill, and he plays almost effortlessly as well. How fortunate ECU is to have him as a School of Music faculty member.

Note: Benjamin Hochman plans to record Schubert’s Piano Sonatas Nos. 13, D.664, and 17, D.850, and Jörg Widmann’s Six Schubert Reminiscenses in New York this summer for release in 2013 on the Avie label.