NEW YORK — “Too many notes,” the emperor is said to have groused at Mozart after hearing a premiere. That caution might describe pianist Alexandre Kantorow’s recital Oct. 22 at Carnegie Hall, were it not such a strong, thoughtful, brilliant, exhilarating surprise.
Of course, some in the almost-full house had planned to hear Maurizio Pollini, originally scheduled, who withdrew for medical reasons as he did in 2022. But the giddy ovation for Kantorow opened a new vista of appreciation for the 26-year-old youngest French winner of the 2024 Gilmore Artist Award (the $300,000 prize that artists don’t know they’re competing for) as well as the 2019 Tchaikovsky Gold Medal and its rarely awarded Grand Prix.
The program of piano beasts he’s been taking around Europe, the United States, and the Far East, performed on a bare stage without so much as a flower, began with Brahms’ imposing Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 1. It progressed to his arrangement of Bach’s D minor Chaconne for a mighty left hand, then to five Schubert songs transcribed by Liszt, and, finally, to Schubert’s outsized Wanderer Fantasy.
Playing anybody’s Op. 1 in recital is dicey; count on it being a neophyte composer who isn’t yet sure what he’s doing, hasn’t come into his true sound, and so forth. But the astute Robert and Clara Schumann, hosting young Brahms, were captivated by his talent. Today’s listener can, without falling in love with the piece, hear what it forecasts.
The sturdy heroic opening movement suggests the Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 119, his last work for solo piano. The second movement, Intermezzo in E minor, presages the German folk song arrangements Brahms loved and the wild, luscious Gypsy Songs he made up. Other movements display the messy struggles heard in the first piano concerto, and Kantorow’s pianism created the illusion that there are more notes than humanly possible.
The greatness of the Bach Chaconne for violin is shown by the number of non-violinists who want to get their hands on it. Imagine that Brahms could even think of transcribing this movement for left hand. Leon Fleisher, who played its Carnegie Hall premiere, was grateful for its existence in the one-hand repertoire. Kantorow did it as a lark, coordinating his pedaling for stunning legatos, bracing his right hand above the treble end of the keyboard for support.
Liszt must have had a really good time composing the Schubert song transcriptions. In all, he treated dozens, five of which were on this program. The flow of the tune was enhanced by a few thousand extra notes, some twinkling like stars in octaves above the skyline. The moods ranged from sweetness to utter misery. In a letter Liszt wrote about Schubert, he effused, “O tender, ever-welling genius! … From your soul’s depths and heights pour forth melodic freshness, power, grace, reverie, passion, soothings, tears, and flowers — and such is enchantment of your world of emotions that we almost forget the greatness of your craftsmanship!”
Kantorow played with sensitivity to the two composers’ retrospecitve styles and characters. One could see how Liszt broadened these songs’ horizons while still respecting their original scale. The vocal line was so full and complete that it didn’t need words.
In Schubert’s giant four-movement Wanderer Fantasy (22 minutes in this rendition) the revelation is not so much that Liszt could do Schubert, but that Schubert forecast Liszt. Kantorow eloquently conveyed the confidence of the beginning, which eventually gave way to a wandering loss of direction, and in time found itself again. It is possible that its placement on this program increased the intensity of its meaning.
The audience sprang up, cheering. The reward was two encores with more thousands of notes: First was a dreamlike transcription of Saint-Saens’ “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Samson et Dalila. The second was an impossibly huge arrangement of the finale from Stravinsky’s The Firebird. No orchestration seemed necessary.
Whoever doesn’t like too many notes didn’t belong at this concert. The more notes the merrier.