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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Pola Express

From the Vault Dept.: Although I haven’t seen her in concert recently, here’s another review (here’s the first) of pianist Pola Baytelman, who settled into Saratoga Springs a few years ago as a Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at Skidmore College.


PIANIST POLA BAYTELMAN HAS THE KIND OF TALENT that stamps a personality upon any concert she plays. That's a special mark of accomplishment placing her in the front line of soloists.

Pola Baytelman
She set herself a program for a recital at the Siena College Chapel Monday evening that was a terrific blend of the familiar and momumental, the modern and nationalistic. And she looked hardly the worse for wear when it was finished.

Despite the rush to period instruments for performances of antique music, Baytelman remains in the ranks of those who play Bach on the piano. She gave herself the cruel challenge of his Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor to open the program, beginning with a daunting sweep of killer runs that got the bugs out in a hurry.

Characteristic of her style, obviously inspired by the early-20th-century masters, is a commanding, Romantic approach to the music. So that Bach, whose music works well in an austere, rhythmically-acute setting, was given more lushness than the Pinnock-Bilson school suggests.

Which only works in the abovementioned context of an artist's personality. The Fantasy and Fugue then becomes a big, Cesar Franck-like work that succeeds nicely as a concert opener.

And allows an esay transition to Schubert, whose Sonata in C Minor, D. 958, dominated the program. The challenge of this work is exemplified by the development section of the opening Allegro, an impish brute who takes you all over the keyboard in mad bravura sweeps. As an interpreter you run the risk of being led willy-nilly until dumped at the door of the recapitulation, but Baytelman had a firm control enhanced by clear interpretive style.

She is so technically accomplished that she could afford to take more risks than we heard Monday night. Dynamics, phrasing: all was in place, carefully worked out, but that's also a firm base from which to explore new aspects of the music.

Especially admirable is her commitment to new music, and this concert featured works by Saratoga-based composer George Green. Three movements were drawn from his 1970 “Five Pieces for Piano,” beginning with one simply titled “Bell-like.”

It's a textural study, as the name suggests, sparked by the sonorities of the carillon. It falls victim to the pifalls of textural study, however, in its precious insistence on avoiding the melodic and harmonic information that could otherwise enhance it. Texture is a seasoning that needs the substance of other ingredients; otherwise you're left chewing on cloves.

“Toccata” is a fast-paced, percussive movement reminiscent of Bartok and “Fantasy” borrows and distorts the impressionist charm of, say, a Debussy prelude – enough so that I couldn’t help but think of it as the “Golliwog’s Revenge.”

The pieces make incredible technical demands on the pianist, which Baytelman dispatched with seeming effortlessness. But they seemed labored in the writing, calling attention to themselves like neglected children by virtue of their busy-ness.

A suite of dances by Isaac Albeniz was the splendid conclusion, offering a range of about 30 years’ worth of that composer’s work. In working with a Spanish idiom, Albeniz achieved a marvelous transparency in his writing that supports the swirling rhythms nicely.

Baytelman wisely chose not to pursue the bravura (which may be more the Manuel de Falla realm) but concentrate on the rich meat of the pieces, creating a compelling portrait both of turn-of-the-century Spain and turn-of-the-century piano styling.

But the bravura hunters were given their due with the brilliant encore by Chopin that ended the concert.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 26 October 1988

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