Pianist William Masselos (1920-1992) was honored in a most special way this past weekend, in a tribute piano recital by Lori Sims, presented by the organization Hausmusik. Widely recognized not only as a great pianist in diverse repertoire but as a particularly important champion of twentieth-century American piano music, Mr. Masselos is also fondly remembered by those of us who were at Juilliard during his tenure there as something of an unsung hero — despite his countless enviable achievements. One applauds Hausmusik for paying tribute and also for choosing Lori Sims, a pianist of prodigious abilities, to do so.
Each work on the program related in some way to William Masselos, at times in exact repertoire matches, notably Ben Weber’s Fantasia (Variations), and at other times through subtler connections, well-explained in the pianist’s thoughtful program notes. Rather than playing the “six degrees of separation” game, I prefer to focus on Ms. Sims, whose own personal connections to each work were evident from the first notes onward, and whose masterful readings obviated the need for any extraneous “raison d’etre.”
First off, Ms. Sims gave an extremely taut, precise, and intelligent performance of Copland’s Piano Variations. With an energy that suggested she was spring-loaded, she brought the work electricity and clarity. Nerves of steel are to be expected from a pianist who has won major competitions, including the Gina Bachauer 1998 Gold Medal, but hers are exceptional, unruffled even by the blaring of loud vocal music from some unknown source during her first entrance onstage. The intensity never let up, and Ben Weber’s Fantasia was another tour de force, this time exploiting the pianist’s gift for more romantic, lush sonorities. What Ms. Sims likened to “Scriabin’s neurotic energy” seemed to abound, and one could only be astounded that after this Weber and the Copland, there were still three Griffes “Roman Sketches” and Barber’s monumental Piano Sonata yet to come (to complete an hour-long “first half”).
The Griffes pieces did provide some impressionistic relief from the musical tension, but only for the audience, as the pianistic demands simply shifted to a different kind of artistry. “The White Peacock” requires a special languid sensuality, and Ms. Sims brought it out to a tee. “The Fountain of Acqua Paola” needs streaming showers of delicacy, expertly colored, and it had just that. “Clouds” had no less mesmerizing an effect.
The Barber Sonata, showing not a trace of fatigue, was sure-fire. While it may not have been this listener’s all-time favorite performance of the work, it was an amazingly polished, assertive close to a first half of mammoth difficulty. Perhaps if one had to pinpoint a reservation about it, it would be that Ms. Sims has such a formidable technique that she made short work of some of its heroic climaxes. In the fourth movement Fugue especially, my favorite performances let loose with an almost ferocious abandon toward the close. Ms. Sims could perhaps be called “unostentatious” (as the honoree, Mr. Masselos, was described by Harold Schonberg), but one wanted to share in the sense of triumph and release that she had so richly earned.
The program’s second part was made up of Clara Schumann’s Romances, Op. 11, Nos. 1 and 3, and Robert Schumann’s Fantasy, Op. 17. These works showed great sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and fervor, and there were many moments of nearly transcendent beauty. Somehow, though, the truly indelible impression was made on this listener by the twentieth-century works. Ms. Sims showed that she has a rare gift for bringing audiences closer to these works, and it is a gift that should continue taking her to new musical heights.
-Rorianne Schrade for New York Concert Review; New York, NY