Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor is one of the all-time greatest piano challenges-a gigantic work that has drawn mixed reviews since its premiere in 1857. The influential critic Eduard Hanslick described it as “an impossible musical monster.” Liszt’s later son-in-law, Richard Wagner, called it “beautiful, great, lovely, deep and noble, sublime.” Most agree, however, that it is probably the most significant composition by the man generally regarded as the Romantic era’s greatest pianist.
Last Friday, Andrew von Oeyen, 24, played it as part of a demanding program at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Pacific Palisades. Von Oeyen, raised in Malibu and now a resident of New York, has emerged in recent years as one of the most captivating pianists of his generation; a sought-after soloist from Seattle to Slovakia.
With his long, blond hair flying and occasional languid gestures, von Oeyen reminded one of images of 19th-century virtuosos (indeed, one member of the audience was seen sketching him during the performance). But there was nothing languid about his performance of this musical Everest. Its technical challenges were executed with daring panache; more important, von Oeyen’s interpretation reflected an intense understanding of the dramatic emotionalism that defined the era in which the music was written. Volcanic in the dramatic episodes of the piece, his playing was near transcendental in the music’s more contemplative episodes; altogether, the recipe for a great performance.
In this, von Oeyen was supported by a 9-foot Fazioli concert grand provided by The Piano Factory; a mighty-voiced, warmly sonorous example of the hand-made (in Venice, Italy) instruments that are rapidly becoming favorites of pianists. Liszt, incidentally, never offered an explanation of the work’s “meaning”… he simply called it a “sonata,” possibly leaving it up to interpreters to provide a key to the piece. In von Oeyen’s hands, the music emerged as it can in the best accounts: one felt that an intellectually and emotionally rewarding journey had been traveled. The standing room only audience responded with a standing ovation.
The program also included Claude Debussy’s 1903 “Estampes” (“Engravings”), three excerpts from György Ligeti’s experimental “Musica ricerata composed in the early 1950s and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 13 in E-flat Major, Op 27, No. 1 (misidentified in the program). The technical demands of Debussy’s miniatures were seemingly meant for the gorgeous tones von Oeyen drew from the piano, especially “Pagodas” with its evocation of Asian gongs. Ligeti’s pieces-early serial music-were, in turn, thought provoking and humorous. Beethoven’s 13th Sonata is far less familiar than his next (the “Moonlight”), more extroverted and subtitled “like a fantasy,” unlike others he had composed. It is, in fact, the composer’s homage to Mozart, dead only a decade when Beethoven composed the sonata in 1801 for a far different world. Here again, von Oeyen met the challenge admirably, presenting the passionate side of Beethoven without steamrollering references to the earlier tradition.
For encores, von Oeyen delivered a breathtaking performance of Liszt’s glittering transcription of the Bridal Procession from Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and a Gershwin rag.