JWR Articles: Live Event - Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society (Featured performer: Michael Esch) - May 6, 2003

Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society

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Esch on the brink of greatness

The unsung hero of classical music is the “amateur.” For centuries, much chamber and solo music has been written for those in society who believe that attending concerts or hosting musical soirées was a normal part of life—not exceptional events. Stepping into the second-storey loft (few of whose eighty seats lacked occupants) on Sunday night for a piano recital in the current series of the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society, was like entering a time machine, back to an era when great music did not have to compete with insatiable greed dressed up as popular culture.

I warmly recalled an unforgettable evening in the home of Ottawa cellist Joyce Sands, who had twisted my arm to perform three clarinet piano trios (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms). Some of the audience surrounded us in the living room. The rest were content to tuck themselves away elsewhere: out of sight, but not sound. With such intimacy, nothing could be hidden and much revealed.

Michael Esch responded to his turn under the microscope with understandable anxiety, a brilliant program and moments of exceptional beauty that, when they become more frequent, will allow him a place amongst the great pianists of our time.

Of the four works presented, it was undoubtedly Beethoven’s most sublime essay that permitted Esch to successfully demonstrate both his technical prowess and thorough understanding of the subtext. Despite the brittle upper register of the instrument at hand, he marvellously set the opening movement’s tone of quiet confidence, obviously realizing that it’s the inner voices and discreet tonal shifts rather than the “dazzle” of the arpeggios that must lead.

At times, the heady tonic of the “Scherzo,” seemed too much of a handful—particularly its “Trio” where more discipline in the left hand would rein in the frenzy of the right.

But then the magic began. Throughout the magnificent recitative and aria (Who says Fidelio was Beethoven’s only opera!) those of us fortunate enough to be present were taken far beyond the notes and left in quiet awe. This shared, human experience seldom happens, but is wonderfully addictive. Recordings can never capture or create such an experience. Esch, drawing this level of art from the pages, approached heights that many more experienced musicians never reach. More, please.

Joseph Haydn was a bit nervous about publishing his B Minor Sonata. Haydn historian H.C. Robbins Landon suggests it was withheld “possibly because [it] contains some unusual, even eccentric movements which the composer may have thought unsuitable for the traditional amateur.” Twentieth Century Note: Parental discretion advised—emotional content and blatant counterpoint may not be suitable for all ages!

This three movement gem was the perfect opener to a program that, except for the contemporary offering, paid homage to Western music’s greatest achievement: fugal writing. Esch’s tempi were ideal; his attention to detail was commendable (so good to hear all of the repeats). However, at this level of achievement it is now time to push further: a breathing plan must be developed.

Listening to my early recordings as a conductor, I was often astonished at my failure to let one phrase finish before starting into the next. This was even more vexing since my instrument was the clarinet. But when I more fully “crossed-over,” teaching my hands to “breathe,” the results were much improved. Esch would do well to consider experimenting with this approach, for then the music will, simultaneously, relax even as it drives on to its destination.

Denis Gougeon’s Soleil drew much heat from the keyboard in its Chopin-esque “A” section, but it was the middle cooler, night music that was the core of this well-crafted work.

Attempting any major work of Brahms is daunting at best, but like learning to conduct, there is no way of gaining experience without forging ahead in public. There was much to admire in Esch’s reading: variety of colour and articulation, rhythmic security and the spirit of exploration as the variations unfolded. However, a larger plan for the harmonic/emotional architecture would take this performance to the next plane. With so many twists and turns, a mapping out of goals (for me the focus would be on the child-like wonder of Variation 22), instead of relying on longer than indicated pauses between ideas, would enable this incredible masterpiece to gel into a more cohesive whole.

Esch is well along the road to excellence; future stops are eagerly awaited. JWR

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Featured performer - Michael Esch
Sonata No. 47 in B Minor, Hob. XVI:32 - Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110 - Ludwig van Beethoven
Soleil (de Six thèmes Solaires) 1990 - Denis Gougeon
Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 - Johannes Brahms
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