Pianist keys on composers who mixed things up

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / April 29, 2009
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Classical music is a repository of the past as much as the present, but Katherine Chi's Sunday piano recital at the Gardner Museum took that idea a step further. The Canadian pianist, familiar to Boston audiences thanks to her New England Conservatory connection, performed a fascinating program built around composers reworking and reclaiming the classical heritage.

Chi opened with two refashionings of J.S. Bach by Ferruccio Busoni. His transcription of the chorale prelude "Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" was Romantic in the extreme, with Chi using a deep-fathom sound and an extreme flexibility of tempo, drifting in the sea of Bach's notes. Similarly, Busoni's "Fantasia nach J.S. Bach" intersperses a potpourri of Bach themes with rippling, cloudy harmonies, a Wagnerian Rhine giving forth Lutheran piety rather than gold.

The murkiness was exhilaratingly dispersed by the dense clarity of Pierre Boulez's Sonata No. 1. Composing just after World War II, Boulez embraced Schoenberg's serialism for both its connection to the canon and its tonic against the past. Chi's playing was electric, alternating between ricocheting expressionism and mechanistic intensity.

Three French tributes to Joseph Haydn written for the 1909 centennial of his death diverged. Maurice Ravel's "Menuet sur le nom de Haydn" is paradoxically lush and self-effacing; Chi captured its soft-edged reticence. Reynaldo Hahn's "Thème Varié" is trompe-l'oeil classicism, pinning Haydn's era like a butterfly. Claude Debussy's "Hommage à Haydn" took a different tack, recombining Haydn's personality with Debussy's own impressionist vocabulary, imagining the old master into contemporary parlance.

At the recital's center was Beethoven's E-minor Sonata, Op. 90. Chi's playing seemed, section by section, to recapitulate stylistic choices from throughout the afternoon: the Bach-Busoni's wayward rhythms, the Hahn's jeweler's-loupe focus, the Ravel's plush, balanced repose.

For a finale, Chi broke out Franz Liszt's "Fantasie" on two motives from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." Encasing the familiar arias "Non piú andrai" and "Voi che sapete" in increasingly fiendish virtuosic frippery, the music is the epitome of pianistic escapism. But here the closest cousin was the Boulez, both composers varyingly approaching their musical forbears with skepticism: Boulez's fierce defiance, Liszt's compulsively inventive irreverence.


At: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Sunday