On Friday, a brisk evening that brought with it the first vestiges of the fall season, University at Buffalo’s Professor Emeritus of Music and pianist Stephen Manes treated the capacity audience in UB’s Lippes Concert Hall to a recital replete with a warm and generous musical spirit.
The program’s opener – Maurice Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales” – featured loping melodies that shifted seamlessly from wistful to coy and back again. Manes seemed to luxuriate in Ravel’s rich florid harmonies. The waltzes were a crystalline synthesis of some of classical music’s enduring legacies: Schubert’s gift for fluid melodic phrasing, Debussy’s lush harmonic language and Satie’s elegant yet minimalistic structure. The pianist projected a calm concentration and a keen ear for the ambiance that Ravel intended; each new phrase seemed to unfurl with fresh poignancy.
The second composer featured was Sergei Prokofiev, with “Romeo and Juliet: 10 Pieces for Piano,” which was drawn from his original, fully orchestrated ballet. While the music of Prokofiev is indeed charming, it sometimes lacks subtlety and can come off as heavy-handed – albeit pretty – pandering. Presented here as a series of solo piano vignettes, the music feels somewhat disconnected from the Shakespearean source material.
And yet it was abundantly clear why Manes chose to include the collection in the recital. The pianist’s articulations were nimble, and he possessed an innate ability to coax warm, rounded tones from his instrument. The piano’s alluring timbres were on full display – so much so that my measured cynicism toward the composer’s music gave way to a certain affection for its unequivocal Romantic temperament.
This change of heart was largely due to the energetic performance of the recitalist. His playing was detail-oriented but, first and foremost, beholden to the music’s abundant tunefulness. This quality in Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” is best illuminated with an innately sensitive musician, as it was on this occasion.
The program proper ended with Modest Mussorgsky’s most prominent work, “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Manes’ interpretation here was easily the highlight of the concert, the purest distillation of his heartfelt connection with the music he presented. The opening theme of the “Promenade” reverberated with majestic tranquility. And while the ensuing musical passages were sporadically dotted with a blurred note here or a labored sense of pacing there, the spirit woven throughout the performance was always right on point.
“Il Vecchio Castello (Old Castle)" was infused with just the right mixture of enigma and omen. In movements such as “Bydlo (Ox Cart),” Manes subtly tugged at the rhythms, giving the plodding yet noble, gorgeous melodies a touch of rubato. This kind of musical nuance was emblematic of the paradoxical mixture of beauty and intrigue prevalent throughout the concert. “Pictures at an Exhibition” found Manes at the height of his craft, channeling all of Mussorgsky’s magic with supreme precision and energy that was unmatched previously in the concert.