"I have no more encores," said Pianist Christopher Johnson, "so I'll just improvise a bit for you," whereupon he sat down and reminisced tastefully on "Misty" for a couple of minutes. This informal touch came after unannounced encores by Gershwin, the Prelude No. 2, and Grieg, the Nocturne, Op. 54 No. 4.
It was a charming ending for a fine recital by a very promising young artist, just five months out of Juilliard, and playing in Buffalo under the private sponsorship of Amherst resident Ron Folga, who chanced upon his July recital in Bar Harbor, Maine, and decided Buffalo must hear him.
An estimated crowd of 200 or more gave Johnson a rousing standing ovation at the end of the solo piano version of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," played as a special favor for Folga. It was an individual, insightful and not terribly jazz-oriented performance, rather easy going in the opening section, with emphasis on the music's lyrical and blues qualities and its breadth of sonority rather than percussiveness. His rapidly changing tempos and dramatically drawn out slow sections served the music well. The big romantic theme was played with ardor and expansiveness, and the dynamically charging, thrilling conclusion was made to order for an audience outburst.
Elsewhere, Johnson sustained the nocturnal qualities in Liszt's "Consolation No. 3" very deftly, with a fine balancing of the left hand arpeggiated figures with the right hand melodic line.
And in the following Liszt "Sonneto 123 del Petrarca," which Johnson played as almost a continuation of "Consolation," his pliant, yearning phrase-shaping and strongly declarative middle section brought out the music's hyper-romantic message very compellingly without becoming overwrought.
The "big" work on the program was the concluding Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2. Johnson gave this two-fisted romantic blockbuster a sharply etched, strongly attacked performance that brought out not only the music's form but also its surge and passion. The first movement's wistful second theme was worked in with special poignancy. And after the minor key melancholy of the first two movements, Johnson unleashed the riotous coloration and surging sense of victory over adversity in the Finale with blazing technique and an exciting rhythmic fillip at the end. Throughout, I felt connected closely to Rachmaninoff's message, but would have preferred a bit more prominence in the inner voices.
The program had opened with the Sonata in A minor, D845 by Schubert, not an easy composer for young artists to cope with. The piano seemed a bit bright for Schubert, which accentuated Johnson's articulate, crisp and cleanly shaped delivery. As a result the performance delivered little of the beguiling softness of texture that makes Schubert speak so easily to the heart.
The leading voices in the variations were well delineated, the Scherzo's trio had some deftly spun hand crossing, but in the Finale quite a bit of detail got immersed in the headlong rush.
Privately sponsored Friday evening recital in Mary Seaton Room, Kleinhans Music Hall.