Abbey Simon may be one of the most admirable practitioners of piano-playing on the concert stage today. But as he has proved--at least to one listener--a number of times over, to make a list of his virtues is not necessarily to love his playing.
At his most recent Southern California visit, Tuesday night in that wonderful, old, acoustically reassuring auditorium at Chapman College in downtown Orange, Simon again showed the virtuosity, musicianship, sense of proportion and good taste that have long made him a paragon. He may not have caused hearts to swell, but he certainly displayed an abundant expertise at the keyboard.
And at programming. To begin with Beethoven's oft-neglected, petite G-major Sonata, Opus 14, No. 2, was a charming idea, handsomely realized in a pristine--though hardly delicate--reading full of clever details. To end with three excerpts from Ravel's "Miroirs" was just good, old-fashioned showmanship, beautifully executed--the best part of the evening.
Strong music fell between. Three of Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words--familiar ones in E, F-sharp minor and C--tended to be blunt of statement, but otherwise direct and undistorted.
Chopin's B-flat-minor Sonata proved appropriately large-scale, stylish, well-spoken, architectonically irreproachable--but why did the Scherzo seem to go on forever? And where was the eeriness, the sense of foreboding, the pianissimo, in the finale?
What seemed to be missing in Rachmaninoff's curio, the Opus 42 Variations on a Theme of Corelli, was a sense of fun, of anachronisms defeated, laughed to scorn, even. Without a sense of humor, the piece becomes a series of epigrams in a hybrid harmonic style, and the listener wonders why the composer--and performer--bothered. It ought to go without saying that Simon played it with unflappable authority.
Four encores were tendered:A "Poeme" by Scriabin; Rachmaninoff's G-sharp-minor Prelude; a transcription by Rachmaninoff of Kreisler's "Liebesleid," and Abram Chasins' transcription of Gluck's "Dance of the Happy Spirits."