French pianist Rémi Geniet dazzles in YCA’s opening recital

In a program at the Embassy of France, Young Concert Artists pianist Rémi Geniet presents a program of technically demanding works by Bach, Beethoven and Prokofiev.

French pianist Rémi Geniet. (2013 PR photo via Mr. Geniet's website © Patrice Moracchini)

WASHINGTON, October 11, 2016 – Young Concert Artists (YCA) launched its 2016-2017 season this Wednesday past at the Embassy of France with an impressive recital by French pianist Rémi Geniet. Just 23, Mr. Geniet offered what was for this reviewer an interesting program featuring a trio of substantial works by Bach, Beethoven and Prokofiev, each of which demand precision and craftsmanship over showmanship.

Mr. Geniet’s program began with a performance of Bach’s Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV 828, a substantial keyboard work consisting of seven distinct mostly dance movements.

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As Mr. Geniet eased into the Partita’s opening “Ouverture,” I was immediately reminded of no less than legendary Bach keyboard specialist Glenn Gould. I was privileged many years ago to actually have heard Gould in person as he performed one of Bach’s keyboard concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra during his rather brief pre-studio concert career.

Gould’s great strength in interpreting Bach was his near mathematical precision combined with subtle shading seemed to transform the piano at times into a virtual harpsichord. His downfall, at least in live performance, was his tendency to audibly hum along—off key—along with the melody line.

In performing the Partita, Mr. Geniet proved every bit as impressive as Gould. The uncanny precision was there, allowing Bach’s frequently innovative harmonies and daring dissonances to emerge naturally and without affectation. Mr. Geniet’s legato touch was unerring as he maintained each section’s dramatic melodic and legato flow with an absolute minimum of pedaling and often with no pedaling at all. It was a performance that was as impressive for its crispness and accuracy as it was for its tasteful expressiveness.

Mr. Geniet’s next selection was, in a way, somewhat unusual. Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata—No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 to be precise—is part of nearly every classical music lover’s library of recordings, whatever the medium. But for that reason, one suspects, it’s rarely heard in recitals these days, a case, perhaps, of familiarity breeding contempt?

Mr. Geniet apparently decided to dust off this popular relic and give it a subtly new look and feel. Good choice.

He took the opening movement at a steady pace, happily avoiding a too-dramatic interpretation of its ebb and flow, but also careful to observe the transitional notes Beethoven clearly desired to be sustained. Mr. Geniet’s pedaling seemed a bit heavy early in this movement.

Bright, playful, and at times intriguingly syncopated, he second movement—marked Allegretto—is something of a surprise, seemingly popping up out of nowhere and going in a different direction entirely from the first. This movement functions as something of a musical “amuse bouche,” cleansing the musical and intellectual palate before the sonata plunges into its surging, fiery finale, which is pure Beethoven all the way.

To this writer’s taste, Mr. Geniet took this delightful interlude a trifle slow, but still managed to articulate its almost naïve playfulness to great effect, varying the flavor of the repeats slightly just to keep things more interesting.

The light, calming effect of the Alegretto is quickly swept away, however, as the sonata’s final movement, marked Presto, suddenly thunders in, its surging, often pounding chords and motifs recalling, in a strange way, the more gentle ocean surging of the Adagio.

Mr. Geniet was at his best here, handling this dramatic but quite difficult movement with classical precision, allowing its brilliant architecture to shine through before decelerating its concluding bars with an almost Chopin-like rubato, creating a highly dramatic conclusion: an exciting and unexpected way to end the recital’s first half.

Upon returning to the stage, Mr. Geniet moved firmly into the 20th century with a performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, Op. 84 (1944). The third and final of what many musicologists call his three “War Sonatas,” the 8th was completed prior to the Allies’ defeat of the Nazis but at a time when victory seemed nearly certain.

Perhaps as a result of this, the 8th, unlike its predecessors, spots a ray of sunshine blooming in the distance, expressed by a quiet, almost childishly innocent motif in the second movement that ultimately leads to the finale’s stirring close.

Mr. Geniet was quite at home with this challenging material, comfortably applying some of the same baroque-classical techniques he had employed in the Bach and the Beethoven to the Prokofiev sonata as well—entirely appropriate since, despite this composer’s rebellious modernist drive, he was still essentially a classicist at heart.

Though not quite. That’s because many of his compositions, like this sonata, unfold through complex key changes while occasionally erupting like controlled detonations, requiring an approach requiring as much precision as passion.

That’s precisely what Mr. Geniet delivered. His playing throughout was as clear as it was in the Bach Partita while freely bursting forth as dramatically in Prokofiev’s Vivacity finale as he did in the concluding Presto of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. His clarity and precision balanced Prokofiev’s paradoxical violence and lyricism in this sweeping, exciting conclusion, igniting an immediate and appreciative ovation from the capacity audience.

The pianist answered by returning for not one but three brief encores ranging from the charming to the virtuosic, each an inventive transcription by Rachmaninoff, the first on a melody by Tchaikovsky, with the latter two a pair of challenging arrangements/transcriptions of well-known tunes by Austrian violinist-composer Fritz Kreisler.

Taken together, these encores were like icing on the cake, a fitting but not too showy conclusion to a fine recital by an elegant young artist who, if there is justice in this world, can look forward to a productive and successful career in the years to come.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars).

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