Joseph Moog review: Will power

Portland Piano International recitalist displays determination along with dexterity


At one point in Joseph Moog’s March 13 piano recital at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, the 28-year old German pianist unexpectedly blanked for a split second. He expertly recovered, and it’s likely the only audience members who noticed were those who were intimately familiar with the work, Claude Debussy’s “Souvenir from The Louvre” (an alternative version of the better known Sarabande from his suite Pour le Piano.) Nonetheless, Moog went back to the top, as if Debussy had written a section repeat, and the second time played through flawlessly and with unimpaired lyricism. He was determined to get it right!

It was a telling moment. Moog seems to be a determined young man. He smiles engagingly at the audience, and speaks of himself deprecatingly, but this Portland Piano International visiting artist, who also appeared March 12 with a different program, was all business when it came time to make the piano do what he wanted.

Joseph Moog performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: John Rudoff.

Joseph Moog performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: John Rudoff.

Of course, anyone who seeks to stand on equal footing with the world’s touring piano virtuosos must be unusually strong-willed already. The thousands of hours of practicing required are only the beginning. Moog’s program on the 13th demonstrated that he has thoroughly mastered all such preliminaries.

The program was bookended by two pianistic monsters, Piotr Tchaikovsky’s Grand Sonata in G major, op. 37, and Leopold Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus (The Bat).” In between, Debussy’s Forgotten Images and The Island of Joys – a work full of fireworks – offered little respite. Even Moog’s decision to combine Debussy’s music with works whose grandiloquent display could easily have inspired one of the French composer/critic’s waspish putdowns revealed the performer’s determination to overcome all barriers.

Moog had little trouble bending the monsters to his will. Godowsky’s Romantic excesses showered down upon the audience in their full glory, clearly, amazingly precisely, and with as much feeling as such a showpiece allows. Tchaikovsky’s considerably more substantial but still overblown opus was equally in the groove, and radiated a less imperialistic energy than when performed by Russian pianists such as Richter and Pletnev. While the opening theme was, like theirs, a fanfare fit for a czar, the contrasting themes in the first movement had a warmth and lyricism all Moog’s own. The Scherzo flitted by vertiginously but deftly, almost French in its lightness and clarity. I was reminded that Moog grew up not far from the border, just down the Rhine from Strasbourg. Similarly, he infused the grand finale with celebratory bubbliness despite its frequent thick chordal passages. Such froth does a lot to help such a big gulp go down smoothly and satisfyingly.

Moog seemed to struggle a little more with the true francophone subtlety of Debussy’s music. The Island of Joys brilliantly imbibed the same celebratory brew enjoyed in the Tchaikovsky finale, yet wisely avoided Romantic bibulosity. But he peculiarly extended the final quicksilver flourish into a cheesy harp-like improvisation and, maybe as punishment, the performance gods decreed that he should completely miss the last note at the very bottom of the keyboard. Undeterred, he stabbed it a split-second later.

The three Images Oubliées were forgotten by posterity if not Debussy – the title seems to have been supplied by the publisher – and were not printed until nearly 60 years after the composer died. All three are related to other Debussy works. The first shares material with the first song, “The Dream,” in the 1890s set Lyrics in Prose, while the last slyly investigates the same tune, “We’ll no longer go to the woods,” that the composer liberally quoted in “Gardens in the Rain.” The second movement, the alternative version of the Sarabande, may have been the easiest work on the program, but in an instance of Murphy’s Law, this was where the steely Moog slipped, recovered, and improvised a repeat. In this context it worked well enough. Debussy would likely have been far more annoyed by the fact that these works were dragged out of retirement in the first place. As a native of the Willamette Valley, though, I’d sadly miss the irrepressible humor of the last work, whose no doubt deliberately unwieldy title may be translated “Some aspects of ‘We’ll no longer go to the woods’ because the weather is so unbearable.” The music is a bit unwieldy too, strewing whole handfuls of notes around the keyboard, but in this as in all three Images, Moog beautifully caught the sound poetry in a clear, precise and even lyrical performance.

The Godowsky work, which finished off the program, got the wild ovation it was composed to get, and as sheer pianistic realization it fully deserved. The audience couldn’t get enough of Moog, so he came out finally and, after a few charmingly self-deprecatory words in which he expressed his admiration for American jazz, he played his own highly decorated but delightful arrangement of the Gershwin standard “‘S Wonderful.” A nice balance of froth and substance, it modestly concealed all overt signs of will and elegantly wrapped up the afternoon’s concert.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer whose first experience obsessively practicing a major work during his formative years was with Debussy’s “L’Isle Joyeuse.” By some miracle he managed to avoid dislocating a finger from all the times he overshot the last note and hit the endblock instead.

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