Jon Nakamatsu portrait

Jon Nakamatsu Spins Some Magic

Pianaist Jon Nakamatsu, 8PM April 7, 2017, SUnset Center, Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA

Apparently we had a close call. In the week before his recital at Sunset Center for Chamber Music Monterey Bay On April 8, pianist Nakamatsu came down with the flu and a few days before the recital was still fighting a temperature of 103º F. CMMB Director Amy Anderson speaking to the audience after intermission said that their board members had been frantically searching up and down the west coast for a group to possibly substitute for Nakamatsu. However, they were relieved that he rallied at the last moment. Well, so were we, for a recital by Nakamatsu is a special event and not one we would have wanted to miss.

Nakamatsu frequently programs Chopin in his recitals, so were not surprised to see on the program two of his favorite signature works, the Scherzo in C-sharp Minor, Op. 39, and the “Heroic” Polonaise, Op. 53, and both of these received “Heroic” grandly-styled performances full of fire and passion. Sandwiched in between these two bar-storming works was a lovely performance of the rarely heard Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Op. 15, No. 2 — a work he played with the most exquisite attention to details, including deliciously shaped phrases, cantabile melodies that floated in suspension over beautifully controlled accompanying textures, and a lovely quiet ending in which he prolonged the last notes and made us listen to them intently as they gently faded away. I found myself holding my breath.

Another of Nakamatsu’s signature pieces is the Mozart Sonata in B-flat Major, K.333, which on this occasion received an elegantly styled performance with a variety of touches, and dynamic inflection — they were not merely effects, for they always served Mozart’s musical intentions. Surprisingly, we also observed a flexible feeling for tempo — with rubato and occasional accelerations in climactic passages. After the poignant slow movement, it was the final rondo that made the grand effect in this sonata with its marvelous full scale concerto-like cadenza as Nakamatsu held our attention all the way to the concluding coda.

The big surprise on the program was the inclusion of Dimitri Kabalevsky’s Sonata No. 3 in F Major, a work that Vladimir Horowitz gave its American premiere in 1946 and recorded that same year for RCA Victor. Performances of this work are so rare, we can assume that virtually the entire audience was hearing this work for the first time. Unmistakably Russian with hints of Prokofiev (a few passages tip their hat to “Peter and the Wolf”) and Shostakovich, Nakamatsu gave us an energetic and thrilling performance of the outer movements, and also a moving performance of the slow movement, which is at times soulful and sardonic.

The absolute biggest surprise of the evening turned out to be Nakamatsu’s magnificent performance of the Brahms Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5. This epic work, an amazing accomplishment for the nineteen year old composer, can sound in the wrong hands tedious and bombastic. Nakamatsu gave us a thoughtful and restrained performance that was the best performance of this work I have ever heard. I use the word “restrained” because some pianists exploit this sonata for pianistic effect and load the three faster movements with gratuitous virtuosity and fail to bring out the beauty of the two introspective movements.

Nakamatsu got it right. He let the music speak for itself and balanced all its elements with magnificent control. This was a performance I didn’t want to end.

Peninsula Reviews – Lyn Bronson, editor
by Lyn Bronson
April 9, 2017