by Jeannette Fang
With an unassuming serenity, Daniel Shapiro bows at the piano with an endearingly wry smile, not at all preparing us for the roaring blasts of his opening octaves. His whole body heaving into the piano, Shapiro embraces the majesty of the Schubert’s Impromptu Op.90 no.1, allowing the reverberations to pulse away, the smoke falling to reveal the heartfelt murmur of the theme. And this whole-hearted dedication to what is deeply felt in music is what defined Shapiro’s performance. The range of colors he achieved was incredible, with such absolute pianissimos that literally made me hold my breath. (A particularly magical moment was when the momentum stopped and the right hand was left alone to state the theme, which Shapiro played with a transfixing quiet.) Each turn of harmony was brought out with clear musical intention, and every change of texture brought a change of character, which, even when slightly different, was distinct. He would do unique effects, like ending a phrase with a sudden velvet hush, which ushered in the stillness of the next section. The pulse was never lost, yet he had exquisite timing.
One saw this sensitive and tasteful timing in Schubert’s great A major Sonata D959, especially in the ending of the first movement with its delightful harmonic twists. His opening chords had a great sense of line, never sounding vertical, and the ensuing arpeggios were graceful and gestural, as well as uniquely colored with a hazy quietness. Each build was extremely well paced with an idea of the larger structure. The Andantino, one of the most heart-breaking movements ever written, was deeply felt and conceived. In the A section, each voice was distinctly colored, the top vocal and human, and the LH like merciless drops. The tempestuous middle section was gestural and boiling, but what was so powerful was the return of the A section, with the repeated gestures that to me contained the emotional power of pleading and pain amid the death knell.
The Scherzo was so charmingly light, his touch uniquely sensitive, and the different voices in the Trio came out with extreme clarity. A pastoral Rondo ended the sonata, where Shapiro kept our attention with long phrases, intelligent pacing, and elegantly terraced dynamics. He ended with aplomb, showing that the slow build pays off in the end.
Shapiro’s Schubert was masterful. Shapes rose organically, full of humanity but with an angelic imagination, just like I imagined Schubert to be.
With composure and coolness, Yoshikazu Nagai strolled out to the piano for the second half, opening with Haydn’s Sonata in A-flat Major, Hob. XVI:46. His fingers were astonishingly clear, spinning out well-shaped filigree with such a clean, crystalline touch. The lightness brought out the buoyancy of Haydn, who is rarely so charmingly executed. The brief changes of mode were tastefully pointed out, and the voices clearly delineated. The textures were clean yet effervescent, and each phrase was rounded with sensitive timing.
The Adagio’s melody unwound subtly, shaped intelligently with a consistent character throughout. His Presto was fleeting, rapid, and bubbling, with an innocence and glee that belied Nagai’s super-calm demeanor. It was so natural and effortless that I wouldn’t be surprised if Nagai could play Haydn in his sleep.
He launched into the Prokofieff Sonata no.7, op.83 as if in medias re. He never lost momentum, seamlessly progressing with an intelligent sense of the bigger picture. His clarity in tone was perfect for Prokofieff; voices were brought out, crisp and pure, without romantic sogginess.
The drunken sway of the Andante caloroso was still sensitively shaped and limpid. He paced with deliberate care in order to led go at choice moments, showing us the wisdom of building the craft of climax. There was a finesse to all his phrases; nothing was crude or careless. The famous perpetual motion of the third movement proved again the same wisdom of how careful pacing pays off. There was a rare clarity that made me aware of lines I wasn’t entirely sure I had ever really heard in previous performances of this piece. The different voices stood out, and the touch was brilliant. The difficult jumps of register seemed a breeze, the lines between hands kept consistent.
For an encore Nagai whipped out the charming little Scarlatti Sonata in D Major, a perfect sparkly send off for the evening. It was a great night of music, by two pianists who were masters of their craft.