Beethoven and Schumann favourites: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

September 23, 2022 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Every so often, Australian international pianist and teacher Sarah Grunstein forsakes New York to visit to her original home, Sydney and gives a recital in the Opera House’s Utzon Room.

Sarah Grunstein

This time she chose two Beethoven sonatas and the Schumann Fantasie to play to a full house.

Beethoven’s 32 sonatas turned the form accepted by his predecessors on its head. Every one of them pushed the boundaries in one way or another. Sarah Grunstein chose two favourites, The Tempest and The Moonlight. She made admirable work of both, even if there were passages that, to my taste, were on the heavy-handed side. That said, there were tender moments too. For instance, in the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata (Op.27, no.2), Grunstein beautifully captured the underlying chorale by holding back on the triplets that dominate the movement.

Schumann’s Fantasie in C major, Op.17. is, to me, one of the most sublime pieces of piano music ever written. The story goes that it was a gift from Robert to his wife-to-be Clara as they fought and win the right to marry. Its three movements were originally written as a sonata until they got a last-minute name change to fantasie by the passionate Robert.

Since many pianists, including Vladimir Horowitz, have come unstuck playing the fantasie, all credit to Sarah Grunstein for getting through it, even if there were passages that seemed a bridge too far. The second movement, sometimes seen as a march, is so heroic and forceful that unsophisticated audiences can think it is the end of the piece and start applauding. In her pre-performance talk, Grunstein warned her audience about this – also helped by leaving her hands on the keys before beginning the third movement. Here, there were moments of blissful romanticism which Grunstein skilfully conveyed.

Acoustically, the Utzon Room can be challenging, especially when there is a Steinway model D standing with its lid fully open, offering to produce thunder if called upon. It follows that pianissimo is not easy to achieve. Thus, Grunstein’s recital was weighed down by volume, especially when she laid into forte passages with gusto. I think her recital would have worked better in the Sydney City Recital Hall, which is acoustically less in-your-face.

Having said that, the Utzon Room will probably suit her next concert on Monday, October 24, when she will tackle Bach’s Goldberg Variations. They demand a feat of memory as well as interpretation which should suit Grunstein’s style.

Sarah Grunstein  Sydney Opera House concert 22 September 2022

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