Daniel Lessner: Bach Goldberg Variations

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Daniel Lessner, Pianist
Daniel Lessner, Pianist

Daniel Lessner, piano

Williams College Bösendorfer Recital
Chapin Hall, April 26, 2008, 8 pm

J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations
Robert Schumann, Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13

Once again, the Williams Bösendorfer Recital program has given us the opportunity of hearing a gifted younger musician display his musicianship with the singular obstacles of a mismatched instrument in an unpleasant acoustic. A portable acoustical shell has been introduced to remedy Chapin’s muffled sound. I heard a favorable judgement of this innovation at the New England Baroque Orchestra concert, which I unfortunately missed, butit was of little help with a solo piano: the music, instead of sounding as if it were being played in another room with the door partially open, sounded as if it were being played in a tunnel, or perhaps a swimming pool. The Williams Bösendorfer has never been a credit to its justly famed manufacturer, partly, it could be, because of the Berkshire climate and partly because it is too much instrument for the hall. The instrument is extremely loud, and so was the pianist, painfully so, occasionally giving me the feeling of being in close quarters with a mad rhino.

Daniel Lessner grew up in Miami and lives in Los Angeles. He appears often in both cities, it seems. His playing is full of energy and drive and occasionally not without subtlety. I actually found him a very appealing musician, although I could not go all the way with some of his gambits in both the Bach and the Schumann. His big sound, however, would be much more at home in Carnegie Hall than in the much smaller Chapin, which is hospitable to no musician.

Lessner’s Goldberg Variations, oddly enough, was in the grand bravura tradition, unrestrainedly Romantic and pitched more for Carnegie Hall than Count Keyserling’s bedroom. His snail’s pace in the initial statement of the aria failed to convince me, but I found myself getting used to it and gradually entering Lessner’s world, which is a warm, enthusiastic place. The monumentality, energy, and drive of much of what followed was appealing in itself, but it was severely compromised by the hall acoustics, in which the music was experienced as long tracts of playing at a single, very loud level, relieved all two seldom by quiet passages. He used quite a bit of pedal in running figurations, blurring the detail and burying nuance, with occasional exceptions. Lessner excelled in the slower variations, especially those in G minor, which he played with great dignity and perception. In these he was totally persuasive, and they opened my mind to his interpretation as a whole. On the other hand, his approach seems coarse in comparison with Simone Dinnerstein’s exquisitely nuanced reading in her much-praised debut recording on Telarc. However, if Mr. Lessner ever plays the Goldberg Variations in a suitable venue, I hope I’ll be able to be there.

His Schumann was equally over-life-size, rushing forward with seemingly titanic energy. Even more than in the Bach, some of Mr. Lessner’s interpretative decisions failed to convince me, especially in more intimate passages, but I was won over by the freshness and individuality of his approach overall. The audience was thrilled, and he was called back for encores, including some surprisingly sensitive and intimate Chopin.

While I could not help voicing some reservations, Daniel Lessner made a strong impression on me. Above all one can only admire his individuality and his willingness to take risks. In this way he is like a visitor from the past. He might also potentially develop into one of the great eccentrics of the keyboard, like Jerome Rosen or Andrzej Wasowski. Some months ago he played Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in Chapin with the Berkshire Symphony. This can be seen and heard on YouTube—definitely a more satisfactory representation of Mr. Lessner’s fascinating, charming, and stirring musicianship. He’s also a very effective salesman. I bought all three of the recordings on sale at the door.

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