A home visit from Sarah Grunstein: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

September 26, 2018 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Internationally recognised concert pianist, Sarah Grunstein returned to her Sydney roots for a twilight Opera House recital.

Sarah Grunstein. Photo: Ben Apfelbaum

Just up the road from where she was playing stands the Sydney Conservatorium where she graduated in piano performance, while three kilometres east lies Surry Hills where her parents ran a successful fashion business, Habe garments, in the buoyant years after the Second World War. Her father, Bill Grunstein, was also a prominent traditional-style painter.

Sarah Grunstein’s musical journey took her from Sydney to winning a place as a student in the famous Julliard School in New York and then on to a musical career. Not only is she an established solo performer but a teacher and organiser of musical events as well.

For this Sydney concert Grunstein took the popular route of Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann, with significant and technically demanding works from each.  Of her program she said: “Each work is highly structured, yet also highly improvisatory, each in a vastly different way. It is the improvisatory qualities that suggest the poetry and pliability of Romanticism, yet also hark back to the influence of the 18th century.” She will follow up with a special concert for Bach lovers when she plays the Goldberg Variations, also in the Opera House Utzon Room, at 7.30 on Monday 29 October 2018.

The Beethoven Sonata in E major, Op.109 no. 30, which opened the program, isthe third last of the monumental 32 and well into Beethoven’s period of exploiting the sonata form. Instead of a conventional third movement he gives us a set of variations where the theme appears in vastly different forms, including a strong reference to Bach in presto mood. Grunstein gave a scholarly reading of the sonata, although the acoustics of the Utzon room, along with an unevenly voiced piano produced an overwhelming, booming effect in the lower register that detracted from the music, making pianissimo hard to achieve.

Brahms output for solo piano probably says as much about the composer as his large-scale orchestral works. In his Fantasien, Op. 116we get a collection of miniatures that beg to be expanded, yet each is a perfect statement in itself. Maybe it was the different structure of the writing, but Grunstein seemed more at home in these contrasting short pieces and they came across with conviction.

That brought us to the Schumann Fantasy in C major, Op. 17, surely one of the most sublime piano solos ever written, and certainly a favourite of mine. Most well known pianists have recorded this three-movement masterpiece, so performing it live comes with the additional challenge of comparison. Although I enjoyed much of Grunstein’s interpretation, I prefer quicker tempi. That’s a personal choice, of course, but there were some inspiring passages, especially in the final movement.

Sydney Opera House Utzon Room 23 September 2018

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