By Lawrence Budmen

Few scores in the pianistic canon can equal the 32 piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). After the graceful keyboard writing of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven's rugged chords, extended formal structure, and daunting technical demands baffled the audiences and musicians of his day. The sheer imagination, creativity, and artistic originality of the Beethoven piano sonatas continue to challenge listeners and performers alike. Beethoven's musical journey from the classicism of the early sonatas through the poetic utterance of the Opus 27 group to the stormy "Hammerklavier" and other worldly serenity of the final sonatas requires a performing artist of extraordinary gifts. On December 12 at UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables, the Russian pianist Denis Burstein, a fiery young genius, essayed three of Beethoven's keyboard masterpieces in a concert presented by the Sunday Afternoons of Music series. 

Burstein's Beethoven performances were deeply personal responses to the music's flaming, stream of consciousness flow of inspiration. In many ways Burstein is as much an original as Beethoven! His performances were never superficial traversals of the notated scores. Mere reverential homage to Beethoven is not what Burstein's artistry is about. The ecstatic poetry that Burstein lavished on the opening Andante of the "Sonata quasi una fantasia in E-flat Major," Opus 27, No.1 seemed to come from some higher domain. The flaming impetuosity of the succeeding Allegro had an almost improvisatory quality - the meeting of two uncompromising geniuses. Burstein's exquisitely subtle inflection of the heavenly theme of the Adagio con espressione brought forth the pathos of the music's subtext. The fiery brilliance and absolute clarity of the concluding Allegro vivace-Presto finale were the exuberant apotheosis of a brilliant performance. Every inner voice and pianistic detail was perfectly gauged and beautifully delineated. A visionary interpretation of one of Beethoven's greatest sonatas! 

The "Piano Sonata No.1 in F Minor," Opus 2, No.1 is dedicated to Franz Josef Haydn; yet this early work is not a mere emulation of the master. The striking thematic material and subtle turns of melodic phrase mark this score as the work of a composer with an original voice. The elegance and passion that Burstein found in the first movement Allegro were the essence of the composer's emerging Romantic spirit. There was poetry and soaring lyrical line in his incredibly beautiful version of the Adagio. The sheer personality and musical delicacy that Burstein brought to Allegretto section of the Menuetto held his audience mesmerized. The dazzling vivacity of the final Prestissimo capped a truly remarkable performance. Burstein captured every subtle variation of the melodic line with scintillating brio and vivacity.

The familiar "Sonata quasi una fantasia in C Sharp Minor," Opus 27, No.2 ("Moonlight") was like freshly minted gold in Burstein's hands. The dreamy, Chopinesque poetry of the Adagio sostenuto was exquisitely molded. Burstein's ethereal evocation of this nocturnal utterance was so beautiful that time seemed to stop. Here was music making that approached sublimity! How wonderful to hear every note of the Allegretto articulated with such accuracy and grace! There was an almost Mendelssohnian lightness in Burstein's sensitive performance. The sheer tempestuousness with which Burstein attacked the furious cascade of notes in the Presto agitato brought Beethoven's music right into the 21st century. Instead of the usual delicately manicured rendition, Burstein evoked Beethoven the Titan! The music sounded incredibly original and contemporary. A remarkable performance that brought new life to one of the chestnuts of the keyboard repertoire! 

In 1928 the Italian pianist Guido Agosti (a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni) transcribed three movements from the score for Igor Stravinsky's 1910 ballet "The Firebird." This rarely heard transcription demands a pianist with almost superhuman technical facility. Burstein is a stunning virtuoso capable of the most daunting pianistic challenges. His performance of Agosti's remarkable reconfiguration of a balletic classic was simply stunning! The first crashing chords of the Infernal Dance engendered a performance of incredible speed and agility. The languorous Russian Lullaby was both poignant and magical in Burstein's hands. The instrumental color, finely crafted elegance, and glowing sweep of the music were exhilarating. What virtuosic fireworks Burstein brought to Agosti's brilliant reinvention of the finale! His piano seemed to encompass all the instrumental colors of the orchestra. Burstein's dynamic range is vast. Few pianists produce such gorgeous pianissimos! The marvelous conclusion (of the final wedding procession music) was simply thrilling. The sheer sonority (without clangor) and brilliance of Burstein's playing were extraordinary. The perfect combination of a remarkable score and a great pianist! 

In Russia the composer-pianist Nikolai Medtner is viewed with a reverence reserved for that nation's musical deities. As a student at the Moscow Conservatory, Medtner studied composition with Arensky (a pupil of Tchaikovsky) and Taneyev and piano with the legendary Safanov. Even today Medtner shares gold plaques of honor with Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff on the Conservatory's walls. Medtner's musical aesthetic was steeped in 19th century Russian Romanticism. (He idolized Rachmaninoff.) If the arc of history has passed him by, Medtner remains a composer of striking creative brilliance. His "Skazki" or "Fairy Tales" are some of his most daringly original works. At once deeply Russian and melancholic, the scores are also pervaded by the spirit of Liszt in his demonic mode. These miniatures require a pianist of dazzling technical attainments. It is not surprising that such pianistic legends as Vladimir Horowitz and Shura Cherkassky championed this music. Denis Burstein has all the brilliance and pianistic dazzle of those giants and then some. In 6 of the Medtner "Fairy Tales" Burstein brought rhythmic urgency, fiery brilliance, singing lyrical line, and an incredible array of pianistic colors. Pianism of the legendary variety! (Perhaps Burstein can revive Medtner's 3 remarkable piano concertos. These wonderful scores deserve renewed performance and Burstein could be their perfect champion.)

For encores Burstein offered two wonderfully whimsical jazz improvisations. (His musical interests are broad). A stunning, rapid fire version of George Gershwin's "Rialto Rhythms" was a vivid reminder that he is a master of musical Americana. Burstein combines a deeply probing musical intellect with the kind of virtuosity of which legends are made! A stunning recital by an extraordinary musician!

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