Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series

Pianist Evren Ozel, who recently performed at the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series in downtown Chicago. 

 

Minnesota-born pianist Evren Ozel recently performed as part of the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series, offering a lunchtime recital at the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist. His early October concert was about as wide-ranging as a 45-minute performance can be, with music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Leon Kirchner.

The concert opened with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor, BWV 873. This is the fourth prelude and fugue from Book II of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Not everyone enjoys hearing the music of the oldest Bach on modern piano, but Ozel’s approach is excellent and the most striking element of his playing is his clarity. Each note seems to have been first pared back to a simple sounding and then built up only with the composer’s own sensibilities at play.

Thus, Ozel’s keyboard work was vital, clear and deeply introspective. The Prelude’s ornaments were realized with care but they didn’t fog up his interpretation. The Fugue had a strong moving tempo yet one which still allowed every note to sound, breathe and slowly decay. Ozel let the music speak for itself and the results were splendid.

This was followed by the short work “Interlude II” by Leon Kirchner, a piece   that was commissioned jointly by the BBC and the Royal Philharmonic Society in the early 2000s. The world premiere of “Interlude II” took place in 2003 at the City of London Festival with American pianist Jonathan Biss performing.

Ozel dug deeply into this craggy music, beginning devilishly fast and only later slowing down for interesting angles, chromaticism, astringent observations as well as quiet melodic cries. The music covers a fair amount of ground, all coming to a quiet and almost contemplative conclusion.

The main work of the recital was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21 in C minor, Op. 111. Composed during 1821 and 1822, it is the last of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and has only two movements.

The opening, shorter movement has passion and majesty of sound and Ozel was always fully round and open in his playing. Marked “Maestoso–Allegro con brio ed appassionato” there was some storminess but also a gentle quiet space in the second theme. One aspect of Ozel’s playing was utterly fascinating: how he could over the course of just a handful of chords move from loud and fast to slow and quiet in a way that made you believe that this progression was destined by the very notes themselves.

This opening movement had lots of detail, yet the pianist never over-egged the result, so that the greater whole naturally took shape as the music itself blossomed.

The second movement, sometimes lasting more than 30 minutes, depending upon the exponent at the keyboard, is marked “Adagio molto semplice e cantabile.” This is written in C Major and is a set of five variations on a 16-measure theme. 

Just how the performer draws forward the pulse of the music is the question for pianists and piano lovers, and Ozel has strong instincts. As the variations progress, Beethoven adds elements that both divide up the beats in interesting ways while also seeming to propel the music forward on its own power. Ozel masterfully maintains not only control but also rhythmic integrity.

He lets the music speak for itself, whether in dance-like forms or in gestures that seem ahead of their time.

Ozel’s combination of control and technique yielded beautiful music performed at an engrossingly high level. This was a splendid recital.

Since 1977 the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert series has provided free concerts to Chicago music lovers, and live-streamed shows or archived recordings have been available since the pandemic. These archives are a truly marvelous way to take in some great music, particularly if you are homebound as I was this week.

Originally, I had hoped to review a concert featuring Florence Price’s Piano Sonata in E minor, but the archived recording is incomplete, missing large portions of the concert.

To have a look at the archives of the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts, which take place at 12:15 p.m. on Wednesdays, visit ClassicalMusicChicago.org.

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