Classical Reissue Reviews

Constance Keene, piano = RACHMANINOFF : Corelli Variations; MACDOWELL: Six Fancies; Sonata No. 4 in E Minor, “Keltic”; To a Wild Rose; CHOPIN: 4 Ballades; GLUCK: Melody from Orfeo; CHASINS: Rush Hour in Hong Kong – Constance Keene, p. – KASP

A recital by virtuoso Constance Keene from Houston, 1995 reminds us that she once substituted in concert for Vladimir Horowitz, and justly so.

Published on June 22, 2013

Constance Keene, piano = RACHMANINOFF : Corelli Variations; MACDOWELL: Six Fancies; Sonata No. 4 in E Minor, “Keltic”; To a Wild Rose; CHOPIN: 4 Ballades; GLUCK: Melody from Orfeo; CHASINS: Rush Hour in Hong Kong – Constance Keene, p. – KASP

Constance Keene, piano = RACHMANINOFF : Corelli Variations, Op. 42; MACDOWELL: Six Fancies, Op. 7; Sonata No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 59 “Keltic”; To a Wild Rose, Op. 51, No. 1; CHOPIN: 4 Ballades; GLUCK: Melody from Orfeo (arr. Chasins); CHASINS: Rush Hour in Hong Kong – Constance Keene, p. – KASP Records 5732, 79:37 [www.kasprecords.com] ****:

Pianist Constance Keene (1921-2005), virtuoso and pedagogue, enjoyed a prestigious position in New York City’s cultural life, particularly as a member of the Manhattan School of Music. She and husband Abram Chasins (1903-1987) made a formidable piano duo, although Keene gained remarkable mileage with her 1964 recording of the complete Rachmaninoff Preludes. A significant recorded project involved Keene’s traversal of the piano sonatas by Hummel. A testament to her pedagogical abilities finds proof in the fact that Artur Rubinstein entrusted her with the keyboard training of his own children. The present recital derives from the Twelfth Annual International Piano Festival concert (25 January 1995) at Dudley Recital Hall, University of Houston Moores School of Music.

Keene opens with a true trump card, Rachmaninoff’s knotty, often punishing 1931 Corelli Variations, Op. 42. The composer’s last major solo work, it takes its cue from the famous La Folia (madness), the triple-meter Portuguese dance that Corelli immortalized in his Op. 5. The step-wise motion of the tune has a kinship with much of Russian folk music, and the D Minor tonality also appeals to Rachmaninoff’s dour nature, although he plays the minor against the major mode constantly. Keene plays the 20 variations as one continuous arch, reaching the culmination at No. 15, which proffers a big melody in D-flat Major, the same key as the famous eighteenth variation in Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, for which this opus serves as a preparation. The entire last group of five variants remains in D Minor, which take us to an impressive coda. Keene has pursued the passing colors and intricate etudes and toccatas of the piece with serenity of style which well belies her seventy-four years at the time of this recital.

After a brief verbal appreciation of Edward MacDowell, Ms. Keene proceeds to perform pieces she championed in her own youth, such as the Six Fancies, Op. 7 (1898). Miniatures and characteristic pieces, they have ingenuous titles like “The Soldier’s Love,” “To a Humming Bird,” and “Bluette.” They serve to illuminate the keyboard much in the same spirit as Schumann or Grieg in their respective lyric pieces. The last of the set proves most Chopinesque: “An Elfin Round” sounds much like an etude from Chopin’s Op. 25, except for its trio section; then the da capo picks right up in quick motion.

The ambitious Sonata No. 4 in E Minor (“Keltic”) by MacDowell was once praised by Lawrence Gilman as worthy to rival Beethoven. The opening movement Maestoso has a girth and sullen energy that remind us of the Brahms F Minor Sonata. Meaning to sound noble and ceremonial, the music often rings bombastic, its cluttered figures rhetorical. The secondary rhythmic impulse clearly borrows from Chopin’s “doppio movimento” from the Second Sonata. Ms. Keene, however, believes in this music – she recorded much of this composer for Protone in 1980  -  and she adds a grand line and thrilling sweep to the lines that instill brilliance and dignity to what might otherwise be construed as barnstorming effects. The second movement, Semplice, teneramente, means to convey “naïve tenderness.” Sweet lyricism proves MacDowell’s strong suit, and this music can be effective when MacDowell is not busy trying to assault the skies or plumb emotional abysses. Unlike Liszt, McDowell does not command emotional extremes; he merely supplies their gestures, sort of like watching William Shatner act. When the music achieves some spaciousness, Keene is there to ensure its sincerity. The final movement, Molto allegro con fuoco, has a surly militant character that attests more to a digital facility in the composer than to his melodic gifts. Rather percussive and clangorous, it tries too hard in its contrapuntal passages, as if – similar to Tchaikovsky – MacDowell were “legitimizing” his art with “learned” counterpoint. Ms. Keene, however, urges her way forward, dauntless, and by the sheer dint of her own conviction, brings the work to a solid dramatic conclusion.

The “pearl” of this recital must be the set of four Chopin Ballades, music Keene never recorded commercially. She plays the set in reverse order, itself a unique approach. The F Minor receives a pellucid reading, strong in the bass and ductile in its extension of the melodic line. Keene opts for a forward-moving approach, not particularly dwelling on held notes for dramatic effect. Once Chopin’s iconoclastic polyphony sets in, Keene’s power and velocity alter, as well as her more thoughtful application of poetic phrasing, though her basic pulse remains solid. The architecture in this massive piece exerts itself, too, a strong feeling for its mix of sonata form and variation. The cascades of sound acquire a voluptuous momentum, convincing us that Keene had the Chopin style thoroughly at her command.  Keene moves directly to the A-flat Major Ballade, investing into each of its contrasting registers a varied affect, once more propelled in her unsentimental but lucid style. Quite staccato, the countersubject begins its pert dialogue, becoming both a ringing series of bells and a dire moment of grand passion. We detect concessions to the Chopin rubato, as the music assumes a more protean character, embracing mazurka and waltz metrics or some uncanny hybrid. When Keene turns up the velocity, the potent agogics make known their jarring, intensely visceral effect, and we simply concede the brilliant authority of her conception as she rushes the barricades at the coda.

Keene waxes more “poetic” in the F Major Ballade, its dreamy 6/8 suddenly erupting into A Minor to insert a storm into the Mickiewicz lake of the Willis, if the Polish ballad seems relevant. Keene’s voluptuous bass chords and urgency to the Presto con fuoco recapitulated quite sweeps us away, as it had the audience in Houston. With the Neapolitan chord that opens the G Minor Ballade, we are rapt by Keene’s sense of rhythmic pulse, moving from 4/4 to 6/4 to (eventually) 2/2 with liquid finesse. The most intimate of her renditions, Keene’s G Minor Ballade communicates that bitter-sweet aura of tragedy and grand mystery that makes us drink from Chopin’s fountain perennially. Her phraseology has its own eccentricities, much like kindred artist Shura Cherkassky, but once we accept her logic the performance maintains its own integrity. We realize why Keene made an excellent substitute for Vladimir Horowitz on one historic occasion, and the pent-up applause acknowledges it.

Mme. Keene dedicates her recital to Abbey Simon, who had suffered an accident. She plays for her first encore her late husband Abram Chasin’s transcription of Gluck’s ardent melody from Orfeo, a favorite of Abbey Simon. Wrought slowly, con espessivo, the piece shimmers (in haunted echo effects) under Keene’s pearly fingers. Chasins himself enjoys an encore, in the form of his charmingly hectic Rush Hour in Hong Kong, an encore championed by the aforementioned Shura Cherkassky. Without comment, Keene performs MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose” from his Woodland Sketches as her finale. Simplicity itself.

—Gary Lemco




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