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S & H International Concert Review

Master’s Recital and Veteran Quartet’s Concert: Brian Ciach and the Juilliard Quartet perform Wernick (BJ)

It cannot often happen that the recital given by a student in pursuit of his master’s degree provokes a seasoned critic to write a review for international dissemination. But at Boyer College of Music in Philadelphia’s Temple University on April 19, I witnessed a performance that demanded recognition on that level. The graduand was a young man named Brian Ciach (pronounced, I’m told, "Sigh-ack"), and I assure you that it is a name you will be hearing much of in the not too distant future.

A Philadelphia resident, Ciach studies piano with Charles Abramovic in the excellent keyboard department headed by Harvey Wedeen, and he also studies composition. Something of his artistic seriousness was apparent, even before he had played a note, from the extraordinarily taxing program he had selected for the occasion: Schoenberg’s Suite, Op. 25, Bach’s Partita No. 6 in G Major, and Wernick’s First Piano Sonata. But it was the standard of the actual playing that at first surprised and then, with unfailing certainty of touch and of interpretation, beguiled his audience. The Schoenberg, to start with, was made to sound like real music, which is not always the case when this knotty, sometimes arid, yet curiously charming creation is realized in performance. The Bach partita drew a reading that combined stylistic acumen with beautifully graded tone-colors and tigerish rhythmic attack.

These qualities came even more emphatically into play in the Wernick sonata. Born in Boston in 1934, Richard Wernick retired a few years ago from a professorship of composition at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a much-honored composer–a Pulitzer Prize-winner, and the only man to have won the Friedheim Awards of Washington’s Kennedy Center twice–and his music amply shows why. His First Piano Sonata, completed in 1982 and subtitled Reflections of a Dark Light, is, at something like 40 minutes, his longest work. It is also a work that offers rich rewards to the listener in its poetic richness and majestically controlled formal structure. Laid out at times on four staves, the music makes formidable demands on the performer, but these demands are at least as much in the realm of extremely soft dynamics and sudden expressive contrast as in that of mere technical wizardry. The composer, who was present and who received a warm ovation at the end of the performance, was astonished to see Ciach come on stage to play his piece without any sign of a score in evidence–"Surely he’s not going to play it from memory!", he exclaimed. That, however, is exactly what Ciach did–triumphantly, for though I have heard the sonata played superbly both by Lambert Orkis (another Temple faculty member), for whom it and Wernick’s recent Second Sonata were written, and by the Australian-born Geoffrey Douglas Madge, I found Ciach’s realization fully worthy to stand on equal terms with those two eminent pianists’ readings.

Brian Ciach is not a master merely in the sense of academic certification, but a pianist, and a musician, you will want to get to know. Wernick’s sonata, too, should be experienced by all those interested in contemporary music that breaks new ground while devoting full attention to communication, logic, and sheer beauty. It was especially fascinating to hear it just six days after the local premiere of the composer’s Horn Quintet, brilliantly played under the auspices of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society by William Purvis and the Juilliard String Quartet, who had given the world premiere in New York a day earlier.

The difference in character between the frequent ppp passages in the sonata and the equally soft dynamics of the quintet’s ravishing slow movement put me in mind of a distinction Carlo Maria Giulini described to me in an interview many years ago: "There are pianissimos that are real pianissimos," he said, "and then there is the kind of pianissimo that has a fortissimo buried inside it." Perhaps it is a measure of Wernick’s maturation–dare I say "mellowing"?–over the past two decades that he can now write a sustained pianissimo of the first kind, in contrast to the explosive undertone often to be felt beneath even the quietest moments in the sonata. But do not misunderstand me: both works are absolutely valid and cogent expressions of one of today’s most acute and powerful musical intellects. Given the strange shortage, moreover, of pieces for horn and standard string quartet–Mozart’s Horn Quintet is sui generis, using as it does two violas rather than two violins–Wernick’s new piece will surely be of interest to every horn-player with a claim to solo status.

Bernard Jacobson



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