:: An Evening with Pianist Daniel Wnukowski
Such a gigantic talent and such a tiny audience! Maybe it really is time to get out of town. Pianist Daniel Wnukowski’s program before a small gathering in La Jolla’s Neurosciences Institute last night might have been subtitled “Farewell Concert.” This Canadian-born artist has been hiding himself away in Escondido just a bit too long, so apparently he’s off to Europe for a long stay, his Mason & Hamlin concert grand in tow.
Educated by top artists and teachers, loaded with experience, laden with honors (take a look at his bio), and currently backed by a bunch of people who know a fine pianist when they hear one, Wnukowski still faces a somewhat tough road ahead – even in Europe where he has some concert engagements already lined up. He may be only 24, but if this were 1960, he’d probably have a major recording contract by now. The world is vastly different in 2006, and not just because crazy people are rioting in the streets over poorly drawn, unfunny cartoons printed in a Danish newspaper. Culturally, society – at least in this remote province – is getting royally dumbed down (an “argumentative” premise I am fully prepared to argue).
Now, if you’re Lang Lang or Arcadi Volodos or one of those pianistic vulgarians who tramples like a hippopotamus over the keyboard while choreographing theatrical displays of transcendent ecstasy, what’s left of the big recording companies will come running and audiences will collapse in rhapsodic puddles. But if like Wnukowski, you sit down in a rather business-like fashion and keep your body relatively still as your fingers and wrists do much of the work; and if you come and go on and offstage bowing like an awkward military cadet, will your message get through?
Well, in Wnukowski’s case, I’m certain it will, probably sooner than later – because if he has a fault (if it can be termed a fault at all!), it is his ability to play things at supernatural velocity without making a single mistake. Nobody can fail to be tremendously impressed by this, and Wnukowski exploits his phenomenal technique to a certain degree. Faster, faster still, and ever faster seemed to be the message of last night’s encores. In the Liszt B Minor Sonata (accurately described by the pianist as a “Herculean” work), shortly after the outset I felt some of the passages were too fast too soon. The structure of this dramatic “death and transfiguration” composition (a mighty struggle that pre-figures Richard Strauss tone poem of that name) demands a careful balance of tempos. And as speed increases, the depth of the sound decreases to a certain degree.
What utterly redeems the negative aspects of the speed factor is Wnukowski’s musicality. It is evident in the sensitive, expressive phrasing of his Mozart (despite a marked tendency towards over-peddling), and the lyricism and emotional drama of his Schumann. And in Liszt’s moments of high tension, while lesser pianists pound the keys (creating a harsh, clanging sound), Wnukowski gets all the volume he needs by doing what some really good teacher told him to do one day – from playing with flexible, relaxed hands. His dynamic range is phenomenal.
What distinguishes a fine pianist from a poor or uninteresting one is an ability to look deeply into the score, to find what is meaningful and beautiful there, and to give life to that music so that it seems to be born naturally, organically, almost without a mediator. Of course — there is a mediator. An interpreter. Wnukowski’s Mozart, for instance, is marked by the artist’s many interpretive insights, although it is also remarkably stylish in the way it avoids stretching and distorting the rhythms.
Because Wnukowski’s technique is so solid, so perfectly absorbed into his body and mind, he can achieve these things. And when he plays very fast passages, the effect is usually stunning. But he should try to resist the temptation to show off lest he stumble over his own sheer brilliance.
Mozart: Sonata in F Major, KV 332: (Allegro / Adagio / Allegro Assai)
Schumann: Fantasiestucke, Op. 12
1. Des Abends (Evenings)
2. Aufschwung (Upswing)
3. Warum? (Why?)
4. Grillen (Whims)
5. In der nacht (In the Night)
6. Fabel (Fable)
7. Traumes wirren (Confused Dream)
8. Ende vom Lied (End of Song)
Liszt: Sonata in B Minor
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor, S.244
Bizet-Horowitz: “Carmen Variations”
Rimsky-Cziffra: “Flight of the Bumblebee”
by David Gregson – February 17, 2006