By Lawrence Budmen

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) was Brazil’s most distinguished composer. Villa-Lobos was a prolific creator of symphonies, string quartets, solo piano works, ballet scores, operas, and even a Broadway musical (“Magdalena”). His “Impressoes Seresteiras” (composed in 1937) is the second part of the composer’s “Brazilian Cycle.” This serenade is a dark, melancholy waltz. This is not the three quarter time of the Strauss family or Emperor Franz Josef. Villa-Lobos’s waltz fantasia is steeped in distinctively Latin nostalgia. This elegant piano work was the most successful offering by former Van Cliburn International Competition Gold Medal Winner Jose Feghali at his recital on May 1 at UM Gusman Concert Hall, presented by Sunday Afternoons of Music. Feghali captured the brooding poetry and fantastic elements of this quasi-surrealistic evocation of Latin romance in waltz time. He brought vibrant tonal hues to this musical charmer that were lacking in most of his other offerings.

Elsewhere Feghali’s pianistic efforts were less successful. Mozart’s “Sonata in B-flat Major,” K.333 lacked aristocratic nobility and classical line. The beautiful Andante cantabile never really took wing. The outer movements were technically hit or miss. Phrases were exaggerated or stretched out to the detriment of musical continuity. This was listless Mozart.

Schumann’s towering “Fantasy in C Major,” Opus 17 needed greater romantic passion. The grand structural coherence of this soaring opus was often obscured. Too many passages were blurred, notes were missed, and the conclusion was ineffective. This emotional showpiece (a specialty of Vladimir Horowitz and Alfred Brendel) failed to soar. There is more intensely felt utterance than Feghali found in the music. Along the way there were moments when one sensed some command of the score’s ultra romantic idiom but in totality Feghali’s Schumann was disappointing.

Two Debussy scores lacked flowing Impressionistic colors. Feghali did capture the quirky neo-Baroque modernism of the Prelude in the “Suite Bergamasque.” “Claire de Lune” was incredibly slow and lacked sensuous beauty. The Menuet was a strangely tepid affair. The final Passpied failed to dance or glow and seemed strangely anticlimactic. Feghali failed to inhabit this score’s refined elegance. The beautiful “L”isle Joyeuse” did not exert its magic. The piano’s tonal focus sounded muddy. Debussy’s piano works need crisp articulation and that was conspicuous by its absence. Feghali’s phrasing was rather perfunctory.

As encores Feghali offered a competent reading of Schumann’s “Arabesque” and a lively performance of a Brazilian vignette by Carlos Gustavino. Either this pianist’s technique is not up to the standard of his competition winning days or he had an off day. His passionate, intense performance of the Villa-Lobos piece suggested that his real forte is the Latin American piano repertoire. One would like to hear this pianist in more of these rarely played scores.

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