A Salon-Style Piano Recital With Humor, but No Cigars

Published: January 8, 2005

Perhaps the salon concerts popular in the Romantic era aren't dead after all. Between the first and second works on her program at the Goethe Institute on Thursday evening, the pianist Janice Weber took note of the institute's intimate, attractive, acoustically vibrant concert room and told her audience that "if conditions were ideal, you'd be drinking brandy and smoking cigars, and so would I." She might have had a point, but in the absence of those accessories, the music she offered - to say nothing of the balance of power and poetry she brought to it - was certainly sufficient.

Barbara Alper for The New York Times
Janice Weber played works by William Bolcom and others Thursday.

Ms. Weber has always been most at home in the rich-textured, virtuosic works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but she opened her recital with a more recent piece exploring those qualities, William Bolcom's "Three Dance Portraits" (1986). Mr. Bolcom portrayed three colleagues in these amusing dances, in much the way Virgil Thomson commemorated friends in an extensive series of short musical portraits.

The conductor Dennis Russell Davies is captured in the mock-funereal (but also occasionally Lisztian) "Dead Moth Tango." Touches of ragtime and experimentation, suggested by a gentle knocking on the piano's frame, mingle in "Knock-Stück," Mr. Bolcom's portrait of the composer Curtis Curtis-Smith. And Abba Bogin, another conductor, is painted in lively, urbane Brazilian rhythms.

Mr. Bolcom gives a pianist plenty to work with, not least a steady stream of complex rhythms and syncopations, and harmonic progressions that range from the immediately accessible to the sharp-edged and acidic. Ms. Weber met these challenges easily, but more crucially, she conveyed something of Mr. Bolcom's sense of humor, which is the soul of this music.

Frank Martin's Eight Preludes (1948) and Leo Ornstein's Fourth Sonata (1918) range as freely as the Bolcom works. Both composers wrote in an accessible, if slightly offbeat style that owed a great deal to the Impressionists but wasn't entirely of that school. The Ornstein, in particular, parlays a Debussian chromaticism into a wall of sound.

After the intermission, Ms. Weber played Brahms's "Klavierstücke" (Op. 118). These pieces demand the same suppleness that Ms. Weber brought to the Martin and the Ornstein, but she gave them a bit less, playing up the music's emotional storminess instead. It was a plausible approach, and there was much to admire in the way she created huge textures without sacrificing clarity. That was also an attraction in the closing work, Hubert Giesen's splashy arrangement of a Johann Strauss waltz, "Roses From the South."