Pianist Daniel Lebhardt: Formidable Liszt at the KenCen

YCA’s young Hungarian artist makes an impression with towering Beethoven and Liszt sonatas at his debut Kennedy Center Terrace Theater recital.

Pianist Daniel Lebhardt. (Photo by Matt Dine, courtesy YCA)

WASHINGTON, February 26, 2016 – The Young Concert Artists (YCA) series of recitals returned to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater earlier this week, highlighting the considerable artistry of young Hungarian pianist Daniel Lebhardt.

This was the first YCA performance we’ve had a chance to review in quite some time, and this excellent performance reminded us yet again of what we’ve told our readers many times—these recitals are still the best musical deal in town, presenting up-and-coming but still relatively unknown young musicians (and a few young composers) to DC and New York audiences. Over the years many of these performers have gone on to become notable classical stars in their own right.

As is frequently the case with YCA’s young pianists, Lebhardt didn’t just come to play for his Washington audience. He came to conquer, mustering his formidable technical and interpretative skills to present powerful performances of two supremely difficult sonatas—Beethoven’s Sonata No. 16 in G-major (Op. 31, No. 1) and Liszt’s epic Sonata in B-minor (S. 178).

Lebhardt opened his recital with the Beethoven sonata, perhaps not that composer’s best known work in that form but one that’s quite challenging, offering plenty of opportunities for a pianist to demonstrate his virtuoso technique. That’s precisely what Lebhardt did as he launched the sonata’s first movement.

Marked “Allegro vivace,” this movement begins, after a tiny introduction, with an oddly off-kilter opening motif, an effect created with the use of slurred and dotted eighth notes, pushing the melody line onto the off beat. This rocking figure sets the listener a bit on edge, leading into this movement’s ever increasing urgency as the primary and secondary figures are developed.

The tumult disappears somewhat in the sonata’s more tranquil second movement, an Adagio, before the power and intensity return in the rhythmic rondo-finale, a movement as difficult as it is flashy. Lebhardt put the Terrace Theater’s Steinway through its paces, delivering a dramatic performance that, ironically, shaped this clearly Romantic work with an almost Mozartean finesse.

Next up on the program was an interesting tidbit—the world premiere performance of YCA young composer Tonia Ko’s “Games of Belief,” a suite of interrelated piano miniatures composed specifically for Daniel Lebhardt.

“Games,” at least for this reviewer, turned out to be something of a mixed bag. It reminded me a great deal of avant-garde American composer John Cage’s (1912-1992) various works for “prepared piano.”

Composed in bursts primarily from the late 1930s through the 1950s, Cage’s prepared piano pieces were performed on instruments whose strings and hammers were modified by the insertion of foreign objects such as rubber erasers and tacks, essentially turning the piano into a custom-made percussion instrument that could also play notes.

Quirky, rhythmic and at times otherworldly, recordings of these pieces were quite popular with Boomer era college students, most of whom wouldn’t get near classical music otherwise. Having come from that era myself, listening to “Games of Belief” for the first time felt like jumping in a time machine.

Tonia Ko didn’t require the Terrace Theater piano to be “prepared” for this piece, so no thumbtacks or erasers were harmed in Lebhardt’s performance. Nonetheless, by standing up, reaching into the piano, and manipulating and plucking the physical piano strings in different ways at the beginning of the piece—and a number of times thereafter—the pianist created passages and rhythms that called out to the ghost of John Cage.

As successive developments and variations unfolded, not all of which employed the black and white keyboard, Lebhardt seemed to be enjoying himself, as he made the Steinway perform Ko’s compositional magical tricks, including what sounded like riffs on East Asian motifs. But in the end, the whole excursion seemed more nostalgic than leading edge, at least for listeners familiar with Cage and other avant-garde composers of the post-World War II era.

Many in the audience seemed to enjoy the piece, perhaps because for many of them it was a novelty. For me, it was not. That said, concerts such as this one are precisely the right venue to try out or introduce new works from young composers, some of which will work, some of which will not.

After a break, Daniel Lebhardt returned to present an audacious performance of Franz Liszt’s epic Sonata in B-minor. With its three interwoven movements played without pause, this monster of a sonata is like a WWF Super Slam for solo pianist. Liszt clearly composed it to show off his own astonishing pianistic abilities, which he frequently demonstrated on his barnstorming solo tours.

But this sonata is also complex and harmonically daring. Its “played without a pause” structure allows melodies and motifs to weave in and out of each movement in a way that integrates the entire structure. The musical world would have to wait to experience sonata format again until Scriabin exploited it in his increasingly exotic final sonatas.

Lebhardt seemed to both grasp and appreciate Liszt’s landmark sonata, not only as a pianist, but also as a fellow countryman of Franz Liszt. Adding nationalistic and ethnic insights to his already fine technique, he launched into this epic work from the very start and made it his own.

From the sonata’s ominously dramatic opening motif—a statement so grim and determined that Hollywood swiped it for any number of 1930s horror films—Liszt’s music veers wildly from the demonic, to the hopeful, to the tender and then passionately romantic, to the triumphant and then back again before its embers finally die out. As the journey progresses, we encounter excitement, brilliant passagework, clattering octave sweeps, suddenly halted developments—you name it. The drama never stops.

Lebhardt somehow internalized it all, then reflected it back in an exciting performance that united Lisztean showmanship with 21st century technique. At the same time, he produced a consistently beautiful bel canto tone in Liszt’s achingly romantic passages, providing the necessary emotional contrast this sonata crucially needs to lift it into the next realm.

All in all, this performance of the Liszt was an excellent way for Daniel Lebhardt to wrap up his debut recital here in the nation’s capital.

Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)

Next up for YCA in DC: Violist Ziyu Shen performs works by Brahms, Prokofiev and Qingwu Guan as well as Rebecca Clark’s epic Sonata for Viola and Piano, a real surprise if you’ve never heard it before. With pianist Jessica Osborne. April 19 at 7 p.m. in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. For tickets (all $35), click this link.

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