William Corbett-Jones covered a broad span of the piano repertoire in his recital today for Noontime Concerts™ (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. At one end we had Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 570 sonata in B-flat major, his penultimate sonata composed in 1789; and at the other end he offered the last two movements of Kirke Mechem’s Opus 5 piano suite, composed in 1954. Between these two extremes on the timeline, Corbett-Jones included Robert Schumann, Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, and Maurice Ravel.
The Mozart sonata was the most extended work on the program, as well as the first. It is a composition that balances the witty rhetoric of its outer movements against one of Mozart’s most introspective Adagio movements. (William Kapell used to take that Adagio as an encore, and it was guaranteed to bring a serene stillness to the auditorium.) Corbett-Jones performed the entire sonata with an air of casual elegance, taking visible satisfaction at Mozart’s inventive turns and allowing that satisfaction to spill over to audience side.
The back-and-forth mood swing of this sonata was then followed by the more intense character variations of Robert Schumann’s Opus 2 “Papillons,” whose butterflies are actually guests at a masked ball. For this composition Corbett-Jones was careful not to let the mood swings extend to distorted exaggerations. The emphasis was more on the different styles of dance and the extended farewell, whose fatigue had been induced by overindulgence in spirits.
Corbett-Jones also kept his Brahms from swinging to extremes. He selected the last of the Opus 119 piano pieces, the E-flat major rhapsody (which also happens to be Brahms’ final composition for solo piano). In the Opus 119 cycle this rhapsody follows three relatively subdued and introspective intermezzo pieces, and there are too many pianists who take the shift in style as an excuse to go haywire. Corbett-Jones nicely captured the twists and turns that the music takes through different moods without ever letting things get out of hand, allowing the listener to focus on the music itself rather than any emotional excess. The same could be said of his approach to the concluding work on the program, Chopin’s Opus 60 barcarolle, which builds up an extended repertoire of ornate embellishments but should never let go of the image of a gondola floating quietly down a Venetian canal.
The two Mechem movements were relatively brief but provided a refreshing gust of American modernism. This may be why Corbett-Jones chose to offer them after the Germanic rhetoric of the Brahms rhapsody. That modernist spirit was then further sustained with a performance of the forlane dance movement from Ravel’s original piano version of Le Tombeau de Couperin. The harmonic and melodic gestures were all suitably modernist, but they were expressed with decidedly Baroque connotations.
This all made for a rather massive program. Indeed, the concert lasted longer than most Noontime Concerts™ events. However, there were no signs of restlessness on audience side. Corbett-Jones knows how to connect with his audience, and he drew everyone in as he systematically turned the pages of his personal album of the history of the piano repertoire.