Daniel Gortler reaches the Maverick

Daniel Gortler (file photo)

“A man’s reach should exceed his reach,” Robert Browning tells us. That’s good advice, worth sticking to your mirror. But when we attend a solo recital, we want to hear from someone who has achieved mastery and is doing it on weekdays. At the Maverick on Sunday afternoon, Israeli pianist Daniel Gortler seemed, throughout his performance, to go too far. We applaud his efforts, but think he’s made light of the music with the Maverick audience. Everything seemed laborious.

The second half included Schubert’s great last sonata. The unusual first half featured 15 lyrical pieces by Edvard Grieg. “Oh, damn it! ” we thought. “I haven’t heard of it in years!” Grieg’s 66 pretty jewels are character pieces that should shimmer and shine, float and light up, jump and drag. Gortler’s 15, alas, did not. They all seemed similar in their lead execution. We kept thinking, “Well, the next one will be better.” This was not the case. Neither the next nor the next. What should have been an elegant web woven with the greatest delicacy around shining gems gave the impression of busy fingers. Gortler has reasonable technique, but he failed to achieve the lightness and grace required by Grieg. He achieved a lot of hammering, hesitations in the wrong places and unsteady tempos in an utterly wooden rendition of what should be shaped by sunlight and shadow. We sighed and felt grateful when the intermission arrived.

Normally we enjoy some pretty wonderful chatter during a Maverick intermission as we gather under the familiar trees with people we’ve known for years and with people we barely know. Most of the time, we talk about how the music was transcendentally wonderful. On Sunday, the buzz was on other topics.

Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat major D. 960 is one of the pillars of Western music, indeed of all Western art. Unfortunately, it turned out that Gortler was looking for something just beyond his reach. We salute his effort (the reach, the passing of a man, etc.), but not his choice to bring him to the Maverick. He succeeded, with great effort, in striking most of the notes of this colossal work; we found ourselves grateful that he didn’t take the rehearsals. He peppered the colossally sad second movement of the Andante sostenuto with distracting, contrived and unnecessary rubati. We are aware of the deep emotions being extracted and deployed; we don’t need to hear them underlined by random stretches of tempi and affected gestures of the performer’s head.

Schubert composed the last two movements just a month or two before his death at age 32. These nostalgic allegri seem to deny the inevitable – they cry out to be played with panache and carefree tenderness, like dances on the edge of the abyss. But in Gortler’s hands, they only testified to the enormous effort it took him to hit all those fast notes in the right order.

We were surprised several times during the performance to see the pianist turn away from the audience, lean over to drink from his water bottle which was on the floor to his left. We have, in a life of concerts, never seen that. Not in the middle of a room, not between moves. Not in jeans that rode a little lower than would be desirable. Even singers, who God knows need to lube their pipes, don’t do it in the middle of a big job. The orchestra and choir members can get away with it if they’re in the back row and it’s a small bottle and no one cares. But not a soloist. It’s just not done. It’s about the music, sir, not what it takes to get you through the next 40 minutes.

Mary Fairchild lives in Rosendale, New York, after a long career as a host at WQXR, WNYC, WMHT (Schenectady) and WPLN (Nashville). For the past twenty years, she has been writing program notes for Vladimir Feltsman’s PianoSummer at New Paltz. Before being called by Kalliope, the muse of eloquence and writing about music, she worked as a financial writer and head of investor relations on Wall Street.

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