By Truman C. Wang
Sporting a gleaming white silk robe embroiled with florid gold motifs, the Carribean-born, British-trained pianist Paul Sweetnam sat down at the Yamaha Grand and launched a program that was as colorful and exotic as the costume itself.
The program opened with Poulenc’s Les Soirées des Nazelles. It’s a set of eighte short pieces with Couperin-esque titles framed by a prelude, cadenza and finale. Mr. Sweetnam played it with huge enjoyment and exuberance. He was crisply and delicately brilliant where required (e.g., the skittish arabesques in the first movement), but also used a fuller sonority than is customary in this music. The stronger sound had the effect of fleshing out these slight though admittedly charming pieces.
The same fleet and graceful pianism also characterized the two Chopin Ballades. Among my pet peeves with Chopin-playing are the over-emphatic peaks and the exaggerated crescendos (especially in the Nocturnes). Chopin himself was said to have hated an overloud forte – something that is easy to do on the modern grand. Mr. Sweetnam’s playing had a lovely finesse and impressionability to it with an underlying urgency that erupted into white hot passion at the end – the G minor’s con fuoco coda and the F minor’s dramatic triple-forte climax. The No. 4 F minor Ballade, in particular, showed some terrific rhythmic definition and passagework that were truly memorable.
The whimsical and the passionate gave way to the limpid early-romantic sound world of the four Impromptus (D.899) by Schubert. Unfortunately, Mr. Sweetnam injected enough whimsy and passion into these pieces to impede the natural song-like flow that is the essence of Schubert. In the No. 1 C minor Impromptu, Mr. Sweetnam’s brisk tempo and jaunty phrasing spoiled the tenuto effect and restraint that I find so endearing in this piece. In No. 2 in E flat, his rippling right hand triplets were obscured in a pedal haze (another of my pianistic pet peeves). Things improved somewhat in the No. 3 G flat (alla breve) where the melody flowed swiftly but graciously, although even here there’s a suspicion of over-driving and dynamic extremes. The No. 4 in A flat showed some sensitive moments in the central trio, but the opening and closing sections would have benefited from more restraint and subtler rubato.
The one novelty in the program, “In the Bottoms” by the African-American composer-pianist R. Nathaniel Dett, is probably best known for the catchy dance number ‘Juba’ (Percy Grainger recorded it in 1920 and again in 1946). In his works, Dett strove to preserve and elevate the spiritual in the same way that Aaron Copland elevated the American folk medium. Mr. Sweetnam played the suite with great panache and relish, not only in the popular ‘Juba’ but also the charming, Gottschalkian ‘Barcarolle’.
Mr. Sweetnam offered a quietly intimate account of Clair de lune as an encore.