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The origins of four of the five pieces played by this slender, youthful pianist— a lithe, almost fragile-looking woman who nonetheless puts the forte back into the piano— pinwheeled within three decades of 1865, while the fifth was close enough, in spirit.
First up was one of the last works of Robert Schumann, Gesange der Fruhe, written in 1853, when the composer was already slipping into mental breakdown. Even his wife, Clara, called the five parts "very strange," and I, for one, couldn't find the centers in them— nor could I appreciate them as uncentered explorations, twisting and turning in their Mobius-strip tonalities.
The Gesange were followed by Arthur Honegger's Le Cahier Romand, five songlets from 1922 that were pretty enough. Neither the Schumann nor the Honegger was familiar to me, so some of their virtues surely eluded me. Still, I found myself waiting for Polonsky— for the special verve she usually brings.
That commodity arrived with her third piece, a set of Brahms waltzes. From this program's pivot year of 1865, these waltzes awakened Polonsky's formidable energies. From the first note, her playing was confident, dramatic, delicate when called for, and in all cases warmly musical. She pedals wonderfully, and she rings a tremendous dynamic range out of the piano, sometimes— hell, often— more than the Fleisher's stone-and-brick interior could handle acoustically.
That workout was only a prep for what followed after intermission. Perhaps Polonsky had to put the more complex Debussy piece— Images Oubliées, from 1894— ahead of the early Schumann, a gusty set of Six Intermezzi that he composed at age 22. Despite its considerable interest, the climax to the Schumann unfortunately suffered by comparison, because the Debussy was superior music, incandescently performed.
Polonsky brings a determined personality to the keyboard, and her attack is so concentrated, and so vivid, that at one point the rocking of her body brought a flashback of the New Wave band Devo to mind. Her playing manages to offer both precision and moments of Russian melodrama. That Debussy performance left aural and visual images that won't soon be oubliée'd.
Polonsky returns December 13 with a recently formed chamber group, the Schumann Trio. She and Guarneri co-founder Michael Tree, on viola, plus clarinet star Anthony McGill, will play some more late Schumann, as well as Mozart, Brahms and Bartok, at the American Philosophical Society. Sounds promising.
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