Classical review: Thoroughly modern Millet shines at Blair

Portrait - Florence MilletNot many musicians could have pulled off the sort of concert that French pianist Florence Millet presented on Saturday night at Turner Recital Hall.

The works on her program – the expansive slow movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, the Sonata 1.X. 1905 of Janacek, the unapologetically modern Sonate (2003) of contemporary French composer François Nicolas, among others – don’t exactly make for easy listening.

Yet Millet had her audience’s undivided attention for much of her 75-minute recital. At times, she even had us sitting breathlessly at the edges of our seats. That was partly due to her virtuosity – like a magician, Millet had a way of making the seemingly impossible look easy. For instance, she tossed off Debussy’s fiendishly difficult Etude pour les huit doigts (a quicksilver study for eight fingers) with an easy elegance that verged on insouciance.

Portrait - Florence MilletBut what was most riveting about Millet’s concert was its seriousness. She arranged her program around three interrelated themes – love beyond death; virtuosity in moto perpetuo; and the music of contemporary French composer François Nicolas. Each work on her program related to one of those themes.

She selected works of Federico Mompou, Janacek and Beethoven to represent love beyond death. The concert opened with three of Mompou’s piano miniatures. Mompou may have been a 20th-century Catalonian composer, but his heart was apparently located in France. For that reason, one might have guessed that “Pour inspirer l’amour” (from the collection Charmes) had been composed by Chabrier or Satie. The flowing arpeggios of the piece suggested a certain Gallic elegance.  Two works from Mompou’s Musica Callada I – “Angelico” and “Lent” – likewise had that telltale French transparency. Millet played this music with simplicity and coloristic expression.

The Sonata 1.X.1905, which came next, covered the death part of the “love beyond death” theme. Janacek composed this two-movement sonata to honor a young Czech worker who had been bayoneted during a demonstration in 1905. Millet played the first movement, “Foreboding,” with a big, lyrical sound and a beautiful sense of the work’s architecture and lyrical flow. She played the second movement, “Death,” with passion and drama.

I’ve never heard anyone describe the monumental Adagio from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata as a love letter to the Immortal Beloved. Millet expressed that opinion just before playing the piece. I don’t know whether Beethoven was actually thinking of Antonie Brentano (or any of the other “Unsterbliche Geliebte” candidates) when he wrote that Adagio – I rather doubt it. Still, Millet made a compelling case, playing this 15-minute masterwork as if it were an impassioned opera aria.

Millet described the three virtuoso works that made up the program’s second theme as the “fun part” of the concert. She played all three pieces – Debussy’s Etude for Eight Fingers, Nicolas’ Toccata (2002) and Elliott Carter’s Caténaires (2006) – with a welcome combination of fire and flair.

Nicolas’ Sonate, a 25-minute behemoth, dominated the concert’s final section. The French composer apparently found inspiration for his sonata in the idiomatic and often mystical sounding piano music of the early 20th-century Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. So Millet opened with two Scriabin miniatures – “Feuillet d’album and “Poème fantastique.” Millet gave the former a brightly lyrical reading, and the latter an agitated one.

I confess that I heard little of Scriabin in Nicolas’ Sonate. Sure, there were some tremolos here and there that conjured the mystical Russian composer’s obsession with trills. Nicolas, like Scriabin, also made good use of the piano’s middle pedal.

Mostly, though, Nicolas’ atonal Sonate reminded me of the all-purpose modernism that you hear in many mid-20th-century European works. The music is abstract, angular and rhythmically complex. It is music that has no memory of itself – nothing discernible ever repeats – so much of it sounds the same. Basically, it’s a work that’s easy to admire, but difficult to love.

That said, I had no reservations about Millet’s interpretation. She played this daunting piece with clarity, power and an enormous amount of tonal color. It made for a glistening – if not an especially expressive – half hour.

Millet ended the concert with Debussy’s most virtuosic piece – L’isle joyeuse. Her performance had everything – effervescent passagework and lilting lyricism. It was even a joy to hear this pianist say “L’isle joyeuse” in her beautiful French accent. Naturally, the performance won a much deserved standing ovation.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.