Sara Daneshpour showed a bunch of impressive skills during her piano recital at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, but the one that lingered longest in the memory was her way with an intense, slow melody. By instinct or sheer concentration, she creates moments when time seems to stop and the brief pause between notes feels interminable as you wait for what happens next, even in works you know well.
In the slow movement of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Sonata no. 38 in F major (Hob. XVI:23), which dives unexpectedly into deep sadness after a sturdy, echt-Haydn Moderato opener, the chromatic notes in the melody induced shivers; they felt like chokes in someone’s breath, aches as the line moved downward on the keyboard. In the Chorale section of César Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, she de-emphasized Franck’s filigree around the notes to ensure that the chorale itself blossomed, unexpectedly solemn and meaningful in this virtuoso showpiece. And in Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 7 in B-flat major, the Andante caloroso, her playing embodied the “warm” tempo direction — irresistibly golden in tone and yet wracked with grief, at a few points evoking distant bells with her tone and touch in a way that made you lean forward in your seat in the hopes of getting a little closer to the music.
Of course, Daneshpour has a bunch of other talents too. She found just the right touch for the first movement of the Haydn, direct and energetic, finishing her trills with flourishes and enjoying Haydn’s sudden contrasts and unexpected turns. Unfortunately, in the finale of the Haydn, she seemed a bit unsure where she was going at times.
No such caveats for the ending of the Franck; the pileup of superimposed themes can rarely have sounded so felicitous as it did in her hands, with each line emerging from the thick chords. During a post-concert discussion, Daneshpour emphasized the need for emotional concentration in the Franck, saying “the technical stuff, anyone can do that,” which drew a big laugh from the audience. But because she has the chops, she’s able to make the Franck sing, and the concentration was indeed impressive, especially in a work that tries to be thematically unified but normally sounds more than a little episodic to me.
The hectoring opening chords of the Prokofiev sonata came down like sledgehammers in Daneshpour’s performance, but her tone never became ugly, just sort of strategically less pretty, and she had the rhythms of Prokofiev’s sarcasm in her bones. The first movement’s sudden shifts to a barren, dissonant landscape felt organic, and the third movement’s relentless, percussive motion eventually acquired a desperate quality befitting a wartime work, with Daneshpour’s stamina never flagging.
Daneshpour threw in two Tchaikovsky miniatures to lighten the mood between the Franck and the Prokofiev, but the program still clocked in at about an hour. The brevity of the program only made it that much more intense. When remembering the weather on Sunday afternoon, I can hardly compliment this recital more than to say it made spending some time indoors worthwhile.
In the question-and-answer session mentioned above, we began with questions from Caroline Mousset, the Phillips music director. These displayed the erudition one might expect from a music director in a format unsuited to such erudition — they would begin with a few sentences of history and then gradually work around to an actual inquiry. I had trouble following them, and Daneshpour did not appear to worry herself too much about answering the actual inquiry, merely picking up the last few words and going, which worked fine. The audience questions were unusually high-quality, for post-classical-concert Q&As. I’m going to have to do a blog post on these strange animals sometime.
Mousset’s questions may have been especially meaty to make up for the lack of program notes provided. I certainly like reading program notes, perhaps unnaturally so, and was slightly disappointed at their absence on Sunday, but these things happen. I do wish the program listing had provided the Arabic-numeral number of the Haydn sonata in addition to the Hoboken catalogue number. Someone on Greg Sandow’s blog was kind enough to explain to me why there are two sets of numbers, but the fact remains that it’s harder to remember a random mix of Roman and Arabic numbers with a colon in there. I feel that all the Haydn scholars should be locked in a room until they figure out a solution to this, after which we should all adopt it and be done with this nonsense.
It was tough being inside and knowing that Dupont Circle was packed with bustling city life (including girls in fresh-out-of-storage sundresses), but being in an oaken room hung with masterpieces including not one, but two Picassos sure made it easier. Everyone in the DMV who likes classical music should make it down to the Phillips once in a while.
Somewhere in here I should probably note that I’ve met Sara Daneshpour socially (i.e., at a bar) one time. She’s a nice person. I assume she saw me sitting in the press seats, not that she probably can play any better just because she knows someone’s going to write about it.