Ignat Solzhenitsyn returns to town for PCMS recital

Ignat Solzhenitsyn, pianist and conductor

No matter where his career takes him, Ignat Solzhenitsyn will always be a Philadelphian. At least, that’s how his fans hear him, listening through the lens of his onetime tenure as leader of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia or, even, from his school days at the Curtis Institute.

Does it matter? In a way it does, and it did Friday night, when the pianist returned to town for a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital at the American Philosophical Society.

If raising questions is the artist’s job, Solzhenitsyn succeeded. The playing itself was enigmatic. But the question I kept returning to in a recital of just two composers was just how different his slightly odd-mannered playing would be received in another city, one that doesn’t know his pedigree the way this one does. In a blind test, would the same warm vibe have filled the room?

This sold-out crowd gave him a standing ovation, and, after a recital of just two composers – Shostakovich and Schubert – he gave them more Schubert. The D. 817 Hungarian Melody was played simply and beautifully, with the kind of lovely tone Solzhenitsyn obviously knows how to get when he wants it. I was eager for his thoughts on the Piano Sonata in B Flat Major, D. 960, the recital’s entire second half, after having heard the pianist’s majestic recording of the unfinished D. 840 in C Major.

But it was hard to account for a lot of his decisions in the D. 960’s sprawling first movement. The performer shapes meaning in a thousand small ways – not just general tempo, but also in where to insert tiny pauses, which notes to connect to each other and which to make separate, where and to what degree to move through a phrase as if fighting gravity. There was a lot of gravity in Solzhenitsyn’s interpretation, a lot of reaching for profundity. But the magic of this Schubert is in the contrasts – the floating, carefree song of the first movement’s opening soon interrupted by that worrisome low trill. Solzhenitsyn generally preferred chewiness to fluidity. This is the way he hears the music, and that’s why we keep listening – for thoughts different from  our own. But the logic of some decisions escaped me altogether, like the way he slammed the high “F” at the end of the first section.

The strengths of the pianist found an expressive home in Shostakovich. Solzhenitsyn chose four of the Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, and each was of such boldly different character that they formed a satisfying portrait of the pianist. That golden tone drew you in at the start of the fugue in the No. 1 in C Major. This was the pianist as beauty. No. 8 in F Sharp Minor was about how making a circus of somber events can somehow just make a moment all the more inconsolable. The knotty chromaticism of No. 19 in E Flat Major gave Solzhenitsyn a powerful chance to contrast the proud chorale-like prelude with a fugue of fearsome clusters. He ended with No. 24 in D Minor, whose Brahms-like beginning didn’t last, and which seemed to evolve the pianist into an artist of fearsome intensity.