Yesterday evening at the Hotel Rex, pianist Julio Elizalde gave a solo one-hour recital as the third installment in the Salons at the Hotel Rex series organized by San Francisco Performances (SFP). Elizalde first performed for SFP in March of 2014, when he accompanied violinist Ray Chen for that season’s annual “Gift Concert for Subscribers.” Elizalde is a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he studied under Paul Hersh. Like Hersh he likes to prepare programs based on an unifying theme or organized according to some logic of continuity, and there was a bit of both in yesterday evening’s offering.
Thus the program began with two familiar perspectives on moonlight, opening with the “Clair de lune” movement from Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, followed, with almost no interruption, by the second sonata in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 27. To be fair Beethoven had nothing to do with this sonata being called “Moonlight,” which he composed in 1801, apparently without commission but dedicated to his pupil, the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. Five years after Beethoven’s death, in 1832, the poet Ludwig Rellstab described the first movement as depicting moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne (which Beethoven never saw). Rellstab’s imagery stuck; and the rest, as they say, is history. (For Beethoven all that mattered was that he described both Opus 27 compositions as “Sonata quasi una Fantasia.”)
Elizalde’s segue from Debussy to Beethoven was a bold move. However, his body language manage to hold off any applause after the Debussy; and the transition was a smooth one, even if Beethoven was not really connected to the moonlight theme. (Debussy’s piece was a musical interpretation of a poem by Paul Verlaine, which had previously been set to music as one of the two songs in Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 46.) Ultimately, what mattered most was how Elizalde showed the same attention to transparently sensitive sonorities in both the Debussy and the first movement of the Beethoven, both of which also displayed a meticulous control over levels of dynamics. The serenity of this shared rhetoric was then allowed to evaporate in one of the gentlest approaches to the playful Allegretto movement with its particularly witty use of syncopation in the middle section. That cleared the way for a fast and furious account of the concluding Presto agitato movement.
Beethoven’s sonata is in the key of C-sharp minor; so Elizalde decided to remain in that key with his next offering, the third of the mazurkas in Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 50. This, in turn, was followed by a move to F-sharp major for that composer’s Opus 60 barcarolle. Here, again, there was an interesting sense of continuity, particularly in light of the introspective rhetoric of the mazurka.
The real structural coup de grâce, however, came with the final selection, Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 28 fantasia. This succeeded Chopin’s Opus 60 with a move from F-sharp major to F-sharp minor. At the same time, the music was inspired by (and clearly “reflected”) Beethoven’s C-sharp minor sonata, most notably in the way it followed Beethoven’s three-movement plan. On the other hand Opus 28 clearly had its own voice and rhetoric, particularly since, like the Opus 26 “Hebrides” overture, it was inspired by Mendelssohn’s travels in Scotland.
The encore selection, in turn, also seemed to be calculated, since it reflected on the very opening of the program. This was “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (the girl with the flaxen hair), the eighth of the twelve preludes in Debussy’s first book. This particular prelude is as much a study in quietude as is “Clair de lune,” creating a sense of an overall program that had most effectively come full circle, following a path of technically attentive and rhetorically sensitive execution.