Review: Maria João Pires Entertains With Mozart and Debussy

Maria João Pires gave an enjoyable performance at Northwestern's Galvin Recital Hall in Evanston on Friday evening. Having listened to several of her recordings over the years and watched her recent videos on YouTube, I have come to appreciate the artistry of this Portuguese pianist. She turns 80 years old in July, and she applies this maturity to the repertoire, lifting it to a higher level.

Hosted by Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, this soldout concert is part of their “Skyline Series,” a fun reference to the views of downtown Chicago visible from behind the stage at Galvin Hall. This fairly new space is beautiful with great acoustics and comfort, but the screens were closed and the skyline was not visible. As explained below, if there was ever an occasion to keep the windows clear, this was it.

The program bridged musical centuries. It included two piano sonatas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart from the late 18th century, interspersed with two of my favorite pieces by Claude Debussy from the turn of the 20th.

Maria João Pires. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2024

It is always nice to hear experienced hands interpret Mozart, whose sonatas are not performed all that often. Mozart’s piano keyboards were a lot smaller with a limited range. There are not a lot of fireworks to show off technique in these works. However, they contain a lot of great music, and even the easier ones are worthy of performance.  

On Friday, the Debussy provided plenty of opportunities for dramatic technique. These pieces use his modern impressionist intonation. Yet, with movements entitled “Prelude,” “Sarabande,” “Menuet,” “Passepied,” and “Tocatta,” they feel closer to the suites by Jean Phillipe Rameau and François Couperin, French Baroque composers from 200 years previously. Added to this was another favorite Debussy piano piece played as an encore.

Pires displayed incredible stamina. She entered the stage, acknowledged the applause, sat down on the bench, and started the Mozart without needing a pause to get settled. Nor were there breaks between movements within a work, where she used an al attacca style. To my ears these transitions were too fast. There was not enough time to digest the movement just completed, and the closing notes of a movement had not even dissipated before she moved onto the next. She also performed straight through without an intermission or even leaving the stage between pieces.

Maria João Pires. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2024

The first Mozart sonata on the program, No. 10 in C-major, K.330, is of the lighter variety, generally thought of as a piece Mozart wrote for his students to play. It has lots of fast runs and trills requiring supple fingering, but little in the way of drama. Pires interpreted it very nicely, especially the slow middle movement, where she offered clear contrasts between its two main sections. The only problem was a lack of precision; she missed a few notes, which can be very distracting in Mozart.

After taking brief bows, Pires went on to Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque. This four-movement work includes his most famous uttering, Claire de lune. Here she demonstrated fabulous control, with intense passages of heavy chords and rapid fingering interspersed with moments of quiet and calm. She was also great with the rapidly changing dynamics.

Her rendition of Claire de lune was about as lovely as one could be. With the crescent moon lingering in the evening sky four days after eclipsing the sun, having the shades open would have made it even more special.

The second Mozart sonata, No. 13 in B-flat major, K.333, is far weightier than the first one Pires played. It even has a cadenza in the finale, which is very unusual for a piano sonata. Mozart clearly intended this for his own performances and included plenty of challenging passages. Pires interpreted it wonderfully, but her lack of precision continued, especially toward the end.

The last work was Debussy’s Pour le piano. Filled with dynamic contrasts and moods, the opening “Prelude” illustrates Debussy’s genius. It climaxes with dramatic glissandos from the bottom of the keyboard to top. Pires provided the right amount of passion and presence. Although not perfect, hers was a great performance.

After several rousing ovations, Pires returned to the bench to play another wonderful work by Debussy, Arabesque No. 1. It was a wonderful encore.

Tomorrow and Wednesday, Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music is hosting the Gateways Music Festival, in association with the Eastman School of Music. This festival brings to the stage musicians of African descent. Tomorrow's concert is Gateways Chamber Players with Tai Murray and Phylicia Rashad playing music by Igor Stravinsky and Wynton Marsalis. Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, April 15, 7:30pm. For more information, click here.

On Wednesday, the outstanding young pianist and Beethoven specialist Stewart Goodyear will perform several of that composer’s greatest hits, including the “Moonlight” and “Apassionata” sonatas. The program also includes two of Goodyear’s own compositions. Galvin Recital Hall, April 17, 7:30 pm. For more information, click here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.