It’s been a pretty decent month, pianistically speaking, what with the regional debuts of several “new” pianos, one of which – the NC Symphony’s – really is new. One heard in Greensboro, mid-month, is old, but it’s a honey, and of course it’s new here . And lest anyone think that the NCS has a hammerlock on such things, we must recall that UNC has a couple of relatively new Steinways, too. The one named “Terry,” for UNC soprano Terry Rhodes, was heard on the afternoon of October 24 when Timothy Ehlen, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, came to town for a Hill Hall recital given under the auspices of the William S. Newman Artists Series. This series is one of UNC’s – and thus Orange County’s – little gems, a series of family-friendly, affordable programs featuring outstanding faculty and guest artists in programs that often veer from the old tried-and-true path, just as its distinguished namesake did during his many years in Chapel Hill. UNC is richly blessed to have a pair of virtually identical instruments, which allows the venerable Music Department to put on a rich variety of events, including two-piano works, both stand-alone and orchestrally-accompanied. (Terry’s “companion” is “Stafford,” named for tenor Stafford Wing. The NCS could, of course, have had five or six new pianos, had it invested in “hardware” instead of marketing, in recent months….)

On this occasion, the lineup included the sort of suspects one might expect to hear – Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Brahms – but with a wonderful twist that we’ll get to in a moment. The sound in the lightly-populated hall was good, and Ehlen began with Mozart’s Sonata No. 8, in A Minor, K.310, in which his technical prowess was clearly evident. The music seemed a bit pushed – it could have been nerves, or it could have been his somewhat “Romantic” view of the score, or perhaps he was merely trying to dazzle the crowd. Beethoven’s Sonata No. 28, in A Major, Op. 101, went altogether swimmingly. The guest artist shaped and shaded the opening movement quite wonderfully, and the second movement was at once atmospheric and probing. The slow movement was elegant and emotionally engaging. The finale, too, went very well, and the fugue was impressively projected.

Chopin’s F Sharp Barcarolle figured in the aforementioned Greensboro recital, where it was played on an instrument made in 1848. It was therefore revealing to hear it again, this time on a modern grand piano. The artistic results were in many respects comparable, but of course the sound was entirely different. Ehlen clearly loves this selection, for he encouraged himself with his left hand, much as a conductor might do, when it was not otherwise occupied. He was warmly applauded for his keen musicianship.

The pièce de résistance turned out to be the recital’s last work, however. It was by Brahms, but it wasn’t one of the well-known scores. Instead, on the heels of the NC Symphony’s recent round of concerts, centering on the Second Concerto, Ehlen offered the Third Piano Sonata, in F Minor, Op. 5. Readers will note the low opus number and the fact that two others preceded it. Sadly, these early works tend to point up some of the shortcomings critics have noted in Brahms – that he is too windy, too reluctant to come to a logical conclusion, too infatuated (some say) with the magnificence of his own creations. Conductors of the Germanic ilk can make his orchestral music – and particularly the serenades – seem endless. It’s a tribute to Ehlen’s acumen that his reading of this sonata, which is by far the best – and best-known – of the three, flowed nicely, more like a babbling brook than a stagnant stream. Some of us were amused to hear again Brahms’ reluctance to conclude its various sections – and surprised, too, on the occasions when he ends somewhat abruptly (although in this case, as elsewhere in music, all things are relative…). The second movement can seem quite disjointed, but it didn’t, here; the third contains some noodling that shows that the composer could have benefited from a good editor; and the finale (the fifth movement) ruminates a bit before it kicks into gear. The opening movement and the fourth are clearly the strongest of the lot. Ehlen minimized the sprawl of the first, brought out the considerable drama of the fourth, and did as well with the other sections as anyone we’ve heard, aside from an ancient recording by Percy Grainger(!). In other words, Ehlen made a strong case for a work that, absent performances like his, probably deserves its obscurity.

When he was brought back by applause, Ehlen played the A Flat Impromptu (D.899/4) by Schubert, which sent the crowd away on wings of song.

The next concert on this series, part of the Duke-UNC Milestones Festival, will be presented in the same venue on November 19. See our current calendar for details.