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Concert review: Pianist’s artistry brings stories of Mussorgsky, Beethoven to life

The 114th season of Duluth’s Matinee Musicale closed Tuesday night with a piano recital by Alexander Korsantia on the Steinway at Mitchell Auditorium at the College of St. Scholastica. Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, he has lived in the United States since 1992, and teaches at the New England Conservatory in Boston. He offered a program of Ludwig van Beethoven and Modest Mussorgsky, and he must have felt rather exhausted at the conclusion of his recital.

On the other hand, as part of the audience, I got what I enjoy the most: sensitive and profound piano artistry joined with a storyteller’s gift for unveiling a passionate narrative. In each of the three pieces on the program, Korsantia shared his unique gift for hooking us early with the storyline, and making it convincing right to the final chord. Bravo!

What I like best of Beethoven’s music are the improvisatory variations that flowed from every decade of his brilliance. In his early 30s, the “15 Variations and Fugue on a Theme from Prometheus” capitalized on a theme from popular theatrical music he had composed. The ability of Beethoven to spontaneously zig and zag with creativity was new to the Viennese world.

Korsantia treated this set of variations as if he were offering them to Duluth for the first time in history. The theme and first few variations were highly articulate, followed by a string of fascinating twirls and spins on the Prometheus theme. Later, a more somber minor variation was followed by an exquisitely lovely return to the major tonality. Finally, a regal, imitative fugue brought the theme to its conclusion. Not only was Beethoven being spontaneous, but Korsantia was treating each new section as if he had just created it.

The youthful Sonata in E-flat, Op. 7, from 1798, was equally exuberant. The explosive, yet lyrical, opening movement was followed by a brooding hymn. Once again, Korsantia was narrating this music very intentionally, making sure we followed the storyline as freshly as Beethoven first imagined it. The sprightly waltz of the third movement led to a final Rondo, which is another word for theme and variations — Beethoven’s cup of tea. Korsantia caressed the theme, exploded into the most dramatic of the inner sections, serenaded us with a gently rocking boat-song, and each time returned to the spider-web delicacy of the main theme itself.

Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” offers musical interpretations of 10 paintings by Viktor Hartmann, linked together by a Promenade to clear our palates for the next painting. Every imaginable mood occurs in the next 30 minutes. Deep, dark, brooding with gnomes, old castles and catacombs intermingle with frenetic chickens, and women haggling over prices at the market. Korsantia could shift from the very delicate “Tuileries” to the ponderous “Bydlo” ox-carts, keeping the storyline front and center. The explosive “Hut of Baba-Yaga” was spectacular as Korsantia executed the final octave runs with a lightness and ritard that seemed otherworldly.

The grandeur of the “Great Gate of Kiev” brings cannons, carillons and huge choirs into a powerful conclusion. Korsantia was comfortable with all of these hats, sharing each painting vividly. After a quick breath, he delicately sent the audience home with the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet.

From beginning to end Korsantia was a master storyteller with prodigious piano articulation. Thanks to Matinee Musicale for this storybook season ending.

Samuel Black is a Duluth pianist/organist who values the narrative power of music, and enjoys sharing his thoughts in the News Tribune.