Zoltán Fejérvári’s Scintillating Debut Recital at The Conrad

Zoltán Fejérvári’s sheer technical prowess easily warranted the eager standing ovations he received in his Sunday recital at The Conrad. Fortunately, the young Hungarian pianist offered much more: an acute sense of style, sophisticated pacing, an array of ingratiating colors drawn from The Conrad’s Steinway, and a miraculously deft touch that never wavered through the most bravura passages.

Zoltán Fejérvári [photo (c.) Balazs Borocz]

His urbane program adroitly summed up the apogee of three centuries of keyboard composition: J. S. Bach’s G Major French Suite, BWV 816; Frédéric Chopin’s complete Preludes, Op. 28, and Maurice Ravel’s “Le tombeau de Couperin.”

Because Bach’s G Major French Suite strikes contemporary listeners as extraordinarily tuneful–without sacrificing the composer’s wonted contrapuntal genius–it is no mystery why this is the most frequently programmed of Bach’s dozen dance suites. Fejérvári’s bracing tempos for these elegant dance movements never seemed rushed, and his copious ornamentation, especially in the repeated sections of the Allemande and Sarabande movements, sounded uncannily relaxed and natural. His immaculate articulation in the most rapid dances, the Bourée and the Gigue finale, made them delectably radiant, a far cry from the mindless breakneck Bach tempos that Anthony Newman championed in less enlightened times.

Many music lovers favor Ravel’s own orchestration of  “Le tombeau de Couperin,” an eloquent modernist revival of the Baroque dance suite written during the First World War in his brilliant pianistic idiom. But I find the original piano version more satisfying, especially when delivered with Fejérvári’s panache. His sheer command and blazing tempos of the outer movements, the Prélude and Toccata, were alone worthy of the price of admission. But his insights in the less bravura movements proved equally rewarding: his elegant, transparent textures of the Fugue; his sense of mystery in the curious figures of the Forlane, an antique dance, and his subtle variation of attack when the opening theme or its permutations surfaced throughout the wistful Menuet.

Pairing these dance suites from different centuries reveals Fejérvári’s astute sense of music history. While J. S. Bach did not attach the adjective French to the set of dance suites he wrote for his second wife Anna Magdalena–music lovers after the composer’s demise came up with that label–what we call the French Suites (as well as the misnamed set of English Suites) are indeed indebted to the music of the 17th-Century French court. All of Bach’s dances are French, labeled with their customary French names, and all owe their style to the harpsichord and lute suites cultivated by the likes of Louis Couperin and Jean-Baptiste Lully. As a teenager, Bach encountered this musical tradition in the French-speaking schools he attended while studying in Lüneburg, where he was tutored by no less a musician than Thomas de la Selle, a pupil of the great Lully. So when Maurice Ravel turned his studies to the great French composers of the 17th century to compose his “Homage to [François] Couperin,” he was planting his music in the same soil that Bach tilled in the 18th Century.

Chopin’s 24 preludes in his Opus 28 include some of his most familiar pieces learned by beginning piano students everywhere, e.g. No. 4 in E Minor and No. 6 in B Minor, to rarely played preludes of astounding difficulty accessible only to performers of Fejérvári’s caliber, e.g. No. 24 in D Minor and No. 16 in B-flat Minor. So to hear the entire Opus 24 played at one sitting proved a luxurious indulgence. With laudable composure, Fejérvári meticulously worked his way through all 24 preludes, imbuing each with its unique character and nuance, whether impassioned or reflective, or like No. 15 in D-flat Major (the “Raindrop” Prelude), a mixture of both moods. Like Emanuel Ax’s satisfying Chopin recital at The Conrad earlier this month, the young Hungarian pianist faithfully adhered to the score, without imposing the personal excesses on the music favored by the early 20th-Century piano virtuosos. We will never know for certain exactly how Chopin played his music in the Paris salons of the 1840s, but I am willing to bet that Ax and Fejérvári are at least on the right track.

The recital’s encore was “January” from P. I. Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, Op. 37a.

This recital was presented by the La Jolla Music Society on January 16, 2022,in the Baker-Baum Concert Hall, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla, CA. The next piano recital by the La Jolla Music Society will be a joint program by pianist Conrad Tao and dancer-choreographer Caleb Teicher on February 4, 2022, in the same venue.

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