Stephen Manes is a routinely fine pianist who occasionally converses with the musical gods.
This last ability was quite in evidence during his Saturday evening recital, when he took four of Beethoven's more marvelous and familiar piano scores -- a formidable foursome of nicknamed sonatas that included the "Pathetique," the "Appassionata," the "Moonlight" and the "Waldstein" -- and gave them readings filled with power, lyricism and soul. Manes didn't run through the notes as if they were technical exercises; he communicated the wonder of the composer's genius.
Slee Concert Hall on the University at Buffalo North Campus was packed for the concert, with last-minute patrons scanning the crowd for seats, but things quieted down just as Manes walked on stage and headed toward the piano. In seconds he evoked the mysterious, foreboding mood of the "Pathetique's" opening chords and held the audience in thrall. Even the usual hacks and coughs of a phlegmatic winter crowd were held in abeyance until the end of the work, when they could be buried under the applause.
The next work on the program was a near-contemporary of Beethoven's third symphony (the "Eroica") and contains some of his most interesting piano writing. This piece, the "Appassionata" sonata, is a tautly written pressure cooker for melody and rhythm that threatens an intense release and then delivers it in a coda of startling power. Here the pianist's technique was very precise, catching the ebbs and swells of the composer's imagination with just the right amount of interpretive flair.
The second half of the evening began with the first gorgeous phrases of Beethoven's most familiar piano sonata, the one nicknamed "Moonlight." Manes released the notes with all due deliberateness, and while not as poetic a performance here as in the "Pathetique," the basic thrust of his interpretive vision was solid enough to rouse the audience to its greatest applause to that point.
The "Waldstein" sonata begins with a turbulent flurry of subtly voiced notes that builds to a series of semi-climaxes in typically romantic fashion. The composer's tonal palette is further enhanced by deliberately virtuosic writing that puts a premium on accuracy while at the same time demanding that the performer keep in mind the overall architecture of the work. By this time Manes was on a serious roll, coping with the demands of the piece with evenhanded dexterity mixed with the appropriate amount of passion.
All in all, the combination of Manes and Beethoven was a most fortuitous blend, one that deserves to be heard frequently but is heard all too infrequently.