Review: Years Late, a Young Pianist Finally Gets to Carnegie

The French pianist Alexandre Kantorow was supposed to make his Carnegie Hall recital debut on March 25, 2020, as a late replacement for the ailing Murray Perahia. We know what happened with that.

When Kantorow, 26, finally made it to Carnegie on Sunday afternoon, it was again as a substitute for an eminent colleague, this time Maurizio Pollini. The symbolism of the rise of a new generation of performers was hard for me to miss, especially since after Kantorow’s recital, I walked to Alice Tully Hall to witness the Emerson String Quartet’s exquisite retirement concert.

This wasn’t Kantorow’s first time playing at Carnegie; he performed two pieces at Zankel Hall in 2019, as one of the winners of that year’s International Tchaikovsky Competition. But Sunday’s very fine recital, on the hall’s main stage, was a wholly different kind of platform.

And he arrived with expectations ratcheted up even higher than if he had merely (ha) won the Tchaikovsky. Last month, he received the elusive, prestigious $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award, given to a pianist every four years after a secretive selection process akin to the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants; Kantorow didn’t know he’d been under consideration until he found out he had won.

The stereotype is that competitions mint quick-fingered but mindless virtuosos, while the Gilmore rewards more mature, idiosyncratic artists. To win both the Tchaikovsky and the Gilmore suggests Kantorow has technical security as well as something to say.

That felt true on Sunday. A quick glance at the lineup made this seem a potentially tired program: Brahms, Bach, Liszt, Schubert. But Kantorow chose Brahms’s Sonata No. 1, an unwieldy thicket of notes that is hardly a recital chestnut.

And the Bach was Brahms’s austerely grand transcription for left hand of the great Violin Chaconne in D Minor, rather than the more popular, gaudier Busoni transcription for both hands. The Liszt was a set of his renderings of Schubert songs, none omnipresent and one never before played at Carnegie. Only Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy” could be called a true standard.

As in his recordings of the other two Brahms piano sonatas, Kantorow approached this one with a poetically heavy use of rubato, the expressive stretching and pressing of tempo from moment to moment.

It was often beautiful; in the first movement, the section before the recapitulation of the theme gave the sense of emerging from fire into quiet, snowy night. And — or, depending on your preferences, but — it conveyed atmosphere better than structure.

Kantorow brought a peppery spirit to the Scherzo that turned it into something of a danse macabre. Both this and the fourth movement were exceptionally, even a little drainingly fast — more Presto than Allegro — but never muddied.

His account of Brahms’s Bach was rigorous yet rich, with well-judged ebbs and flows of intensity and amplitude. Of the five Liszt-Schubert transcriptions, most interesting was the one new to Carnegie: “Die Stadt,” a collision of the song’s moodiness with Lisztian extroversion, sprays of notes drizzling out of the gloom.

It attests to Kantorow’s subtlety and focus that there was no applause between these pieces and the “Wanderer Fantasy,” which felt as if it had emerged from Schubert’s songs — the opening more modest and lyrical than the usual bombast. This was assured, eloquent playing, the lines clear and balanced in each hand even in the chaos near the end of the piece.

There is intriguing tension between Kantorow’s lucid, pearly touch and the Romantic wildness of his music-making. The two sides were in memorable balance in his encores: transcriptions of “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” from Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila,” and the finale of Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” They brought together suavity and showmanship.

Alexandre Kantorow

Performed on Sunday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.

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