The Australian pianist Dr Sarah Grunstein has had an illustrious international career both as a performer and educator. She has two degrees from the Juilliard School in New York and held a teaching fellowship there for four years.
We arrived early so had plenty of time to read the program for this piano recital. The quality of Grunstein’s own program notes was excellent, with just the right balance of background information about the pieces and the musically significant moments in each. Indeed, a good introduction to maximise the understanding of the performance to come.
Before interval we heard the Estampes by Debussy and Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata (in C, Op. 53).
The Debussy Estampes were written with the Impressionist fascination for the exotic. The first of the three, Pagodes (pagodas), was mostly based on Gamelan-like pentatonic music, which he likely heard at the Paris Exhibition of the late 19th century. It was very much a springboard for pianistic reveries rather than an attempt at authenticity. Grunstein captured the static tranquility of passages well. La Soirée dans Grenade, based on a Cuban Habanera, had the appropriate tonal qualities, but the composition lacked the rhythmic intensity the dance requires; Bizet probably did a better job in Carmen than Debussy did here! It is highly unlikely that Debussy set foot in either Cuba or Granada, so again we may need to take this as just a point of departure. The final piece, Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the rain), was a much better fit to the Impressionist’s musical pallet, and it was rendered with shimmering arpeggios.
The Waldstein is amongst Beethoven’s best-known sonatas. Beethoven was forever decrying the weakness of the wooden-framed pianos of his day, so he would certainly not have had any problems with Grunstein presenting the grandeur of this sonata on a modern-day concert Steinway. She played the first movement in a somewhat restrained manner. The second movement, which serves as an introduction, had an evenly measured build-up to the final one. Here she really released the power of the instrument in the louder sections. Beethoven would have approved.
The entire program after interval was by Chopin. Grunstein played all this as an uninterrupted set. The opening Barcarolle (in F sharp major, Op. 60), a boat song, seemed appropriate as we watched the Sydney Harbour scene through the glass wall behind the performer in the glorious Utzon Room. Grunstein gave the Four Mazurkas (Op. 33) the impetus that this very physical 3/4 dance requires; her left hand ever the rhythmic anchor.
My favourite performances on the program were the delicate Nocturnes (Op. 32 No. 1 & Op. 27 No. 1). They contained all the intimacy of the Romantic opera love duets that is their inspiration. I learned from the program notes too that Chopin advised learning the left hand of these works first, which makes a lot of sense.
The Berceuse (D flat major, Op. 57) is a gentle lullaby in 6/8 played with a delicate tone. The final work in strong contrast, was the grand Ballade (No. 1 in G, Op. 23) which was played with gusto.
Grunstein played this diverse and complex program entirely from memory. An impressive feat.
This repertoire is a fitting way to spend a Sunday twilight in the Utzon Room on Sydney Harbour.