Lukáš Vondráček, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
November 22, 2010

2010 Winner of the Hilton Head International Piano Competition, Czech pianist Lukáš Vondráček gave an exciting recital that bodes well for a bright future in music. He is hardly a newcomer, for though in his mid-twenties, he has (according to  his biography) visited over 25 countries and given more than 900 concerts (having given his first concert at age 4). He has clearly honed his craft through so much playing; what was perhaps more impressive, though, was how completely committed he was to every single phrase, with not a hint of anything “automatic.”

Opening the recital was Haydn’s Sonata in C Major, No. 60 (Hob. XVI: 50), in lieu of the printed program’s Bach Italian Concerto. While I think the Bach might have led even more beautifully to the Mendelssohn Variations Serieuses (Op. 54), the Haydn was full of delightful surprises. With the imaginative orchestral treatment Mr. Vondráček gave it, it seemed to be just as much an opera overture as a sonata, showing sensitivity to the distinct character of each phrase and an enormous variety of articulations. Occasionally the staccato releases of his hands seemed mannered, to the point where one felt it distracting to watch, so I decided just to listen, and what I heard never failed to hold me.

Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses also seized one’s attention and never let go. I can’t recall hearing a performance of this piece quite as dramatic and all-encompassing. It should be required listening for those (and sadly there are some) who relegate Mendelssohn to innocuous, prettified music. From Vondráček’s thoughtful interpretation of the opening theme, to the riveting machine technique in the twelfth variation and the driving final Presto, it was a ride of Romantic extremes. I especially loved the moments where time felt suspended, the ethereal eleventh variation and the melting Adagio of the fourteenth, as this pianist is just as bold in his slow tempi as in fast.

One concern in the Mendelssohn (and even the Haydn) was how the Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev to come could intensify the already full-blown tonal world without straining; one is used to striving for a different sound for each era in piano music, and that did not seem a big priority here. The priority was a genuineness of expression, with not a trace of the condescension that sometimes affects more history-minded performances. All the music felt new in a way that should draw more audiences to classical music. Sure enough though, the louder passages in four of Rachmaninoff’s Op. 33 Etudes-Tableaux saw some subtle harmonic changes eclipsed by sheer decibels, as near the climax of No. 3 in C Minor and the angular, angry No. 9. The Op. 33, No. 1 in F minor and No. 8 in G minor rounded out the set, offering much to admire in dramatic projection and lyricism.

The boisterous pianism of Smetana’s Czech Dances (Hulán and Skocná) opened the second half with energy and humor. It will be good to hear Mr. Vondráček bring attention to more music from his homeland. In an interesting and effective segue, four Lyric Pieces by Grieg followed, Op.57, No.6 (“Homesickness”) Op. 62, No. 2 (“Gratitude”- a nice touch on Thanksgiving week), Op. 62, No. 4 (“Brooklet”) and Op. 68, No. 3 (“At Your Feet”). All showed vivid imagination, but the stunning evocations of the brook took the prize.

Prokofiev’s Sonata, No. 7 (Op. 83) closed with all the firepower one wanted, bringing the audience to its feet. Mr. Vondráček is a powerful pianist, and he should be much in demand for large Romantic concerti, such as Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, which he is engaged to play soon. It seemed he would be capable of playing tirelessly for several more hours, and his choice of a highly percussive, energetic encore seemed to agree (something sounding like Martinu, though one could not hear his announcement). One might have wanted something more serene right after Prokofiev’s 7th Sonata, but this pianist left on a strong and confident note. He should be confident, as he really “has it all.” Bravo!

Rorianne Schrade for New York Concert Review; New York, NY