Instrumentalist - Piano
Power and Romantic Expression

This afternoon pianist Cecile Licad performed on the Sunday Concert Series of the Gardner Museum sitting on two chairs stacked atop each other facing a new addition to the museum—a shiny German Steinway concert grand. Liszt’s Première année: Suisse, from Années de pèlerinage and Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor topped off with a Gottschalk encore La Jota Aragonesa, were all tested with the new instrument and the already-much-discussed concert hall, the Calderwood. Her arresting velocity coupled with astounding muscle gave us a dominating show of pianism from one of today’s keyboard powerhouses in music of two of the all-time greatest writers for the instrument.

The new piano did come with its own bench, but as jury-rigged and precarious as it may have appeared, the second, higher chair sloping downward at an angle toward the keyboard, Licad, herself, preferred this set-up. Not a lot of concert-goers seemed to be familiar with her playing, their curiosity piqued, though. Having listened to recordings of Cecile Licad—and there are enough around to form a good idea of her style of playing—I found myself wondering about her, about the hall, and, yes, even about the new Steinway.

Licad is in possession of enormous virtuosity. On this occasion, the still young, very fit looking, and gracious Filipina roared through Liszt, a bit less so the Chopin, and in an about face, displayed how delicately and finely her fingers could touch the notes of the Gottschalk. There were signs of that softness in the Chopin, too, at the very end of the Lento of the Marche funébre. To wondrous effect, Licad brought back the doom of the march ever, ever so quietly, as if it had arisen out of a beautiful, heavenly reminiscence. For me, that may have been the signal moment of the afternoon’s recital of Romantic era expression.

Another moment occurred in the fifth of Liszt’s Suisse pieces, Orage, the sempre quasi cadenza passage containing double octaves in crescendo. That was a roar that will not soon be forgotten. Excitement galore played out in this maniacal movement. Yet the matter that kept popping into to my mind was this: with all so many roars, where could she go next? It did become quite evident by encore’s end that lightness was not anywhere near a challenge for the expert pianist, so why not call upon it more often? Was it the piano? Was it the Calderwood Hall itself, a cube with four tiers of seating? Was she playing to people at the nether reaches of the Gardner cube rather than those of us who were sitting only 15 feet away?

No doubt Licad also has powers of shaping. The question, unfortunately again was asked: is this the current wave of pianism? What I sensed all along was her great potential for poetic imagination. It was power and speed (we can remember that Liszt broke a few strings in his day) and, in addition, sound sculpting, that won the day. If this is your preference, this recital would have been for you. How does a concert pianist renew works that have been tried and tested, tortured, and elevated? Example, for Chopin’s opening of the Sonata No. 2, marked Grave, Licad addressed the four measures in a gesture somewhat akin in meaning to Beethoven’s declaration in the introductory notes of his Fifth.

That absolutely extraordinary Steinway whispering from Licad for Chopin’s Lento ending did, in fact, further prove this artist’s complete control and again raised those questions about new wave pianism. More probably, more hopefully, the newness of the Calderwood concert hall contributed to such miscalculations.

David Patterson, The Boston Musical Intelligencer
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