NY Times: “Voyage Across Centuries, with Bach as Anchor”

New York Times Music Review
Published: December 6, 2010

Few musicians have had such a wide-ranging musical life as the American pianist Stephen Prutsman. In his teens and 20s in California he played keyboards in rock bands and piano in jazz clubs. But he had thorough conservatory training and won prizes in major international competitions. He has explored world music, arranging and composing some 40 genre-blending works for the Kronos Quartet. His song cycle “Piano Lessons” was given its American premiere this season by Dawn Upshaw and Emanuel Ax at Carnegie Hall.

On Sunday afternoon at Alice Tully Hall, Mr. Prutsman brought the strands of his interests together in a fascinating recital program titled “Bach and Forth,” presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Using Bach as a point of reference, he played 12 preludes and fugues from Book 2 of the “Well-Tempered Clavier” and a pair of gavottes from the English Suite No. 6, alternating them with music ranging from an elegiac ancient Uzbek folk song to the wildly inventive 1974 song “Sound Chaser” by the progressive art-rock group Yes, which has become a Prutsman specialty.

In the first half the Bach pieces were juxtaposed with Rameau, Beethoven, Wagner (Liszt’s arrangement of the “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde”), Debussy and Schoenberg. But in the second half Mr. Prutsman drew even bolder connections, alternating Bach with music by Charlie Parker (“Ornithology”), the gospel singer and pastor Walter Hawkins, a traditional Rwandan ode and more, all played in his own artful arrangements.

Such a program could have been gimmicky. But the musical connections Mr. Prutsman made were so intriguing, and his playing so earnest and sensitive, that you never doubted the integrity of this musical adventure. In recent seasons in New York, the pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and David Greilsammer have also presented programs that leap across historical eras. Mr. Prutsman’s leaps were even wider. Yet his program, grounded in Bach, was in the end a tribute to Bach, who summed up what had happened before and anticipated much of what was to come.

That Mr. Prutsman brought a similar approach to everything he played made the musical connections easier to hear. He played throughout with rhythmic freedom, warm colorings and jazzy spontaneity. I prefer Bach (and Schoenberg, for that matter) with more articulate rhythm and clarity. Still, Mr. Prutsman’s performances were honest and elegant.

He was in his element in Liszt’s arrangement of the “Liebestod,” bringing out the astonishing colors and shimmering textures in the music rather than playing the work as a virtuosic showpiece, which it is not. The highlight for me was Mr. Prutsman’s slightly crazed and brilliant arrangement of the episodic, relentless Yes song.

He did not speak to the audience about the program, which ended with a beautifully subdued performance of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E. Instead he let the music do the talking. The audience listened with notably rapt attention, then gave Mr. Prutsman a standing ovation. There was no encore. To add anything would have thrown off the balance of “Bach and Forth.”

A version of this review appeared in print on December 7, 2010, on page C6 of the New York edition.