The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Robert Faires, April 3, 2009, Arts

Anton Nel

Dell Hall at the Long Center for the Performing Arts

March 29

Leaving one of the most glorious spring days of the year to sit inside a dark concert hall was almost painfully difficult, but then Anton Nel managed to bring the spring day right inside with us.

The accomplished concert pianist walked onto the Dell Hall stage looking dressed more for the day outdoors than for a solo classical recital: no tuxedo jacket or tie, just tuxedo pants and a silk shirt covered with little vertical bars of yellow, turquoise, orange, red, and spring green (!), like miniature rows of colored tulips in full bloom. The man himself made a spring garden onstage.

But it was when he sat down and began playing Haydn's Sonata in E-flat major that Nel really let the sunshine in. He danced through the opening "Allegro moderato" with a cat's-feet lightness that had a sense of frolic about it. You almost found yourself bounding through meadow grasses, buoyed by the renewal of life and hope that comes with this time of year. It launched this first-ever solo piano recital in the Long Center on an invigorating note.

With its conclusion, though, the winds shifted, and autumnal breezes blew into the space on the music of Mendelssohn. In the first of his four "Songs Without Words," a wistful melodic line kept up a plaintive search over arpeggios rolling like dark waves. Another had a slightly mournful air, as of regret being turned over and over again gently in the mind. The melancholic tone continued into Mendelssohn's Fantasy in F-sharp minor, with some of the brooding character of its supposed inspiration, Scotland. Slate-gray clouds hung over the hall as Nel's left hand deftly laid down a soft rumble of bass and the right served up music that escalated in intensity. The rising tension suggested a chase, and it built and built, finally climaxing with a dramatic flourish that had the crowd erupting in hurrahs.

Throughout the pieces, Nel sustained this elegiac tone with a remarkable delicacy, practically gliding across the keys, calling forth notes of crystalline purity that had no more weight than a snowflake. And he frequently enhanced this quality with the air he created around individual notes, instants of breath that allowed a sound to hang frozen in space ever so briefly and for the ache it summoned to vibrate in our breasts. This was especially true in the opening to Brahms' Vier Klavierstücke, where Nel brought forth a series of notes that fell with the brightness of droplets falling in a pool, with the lightness of a leaf landing on the forest floor. Even as the work built in feeling, Nel never overplayed the drama. His attacks were forceful and precise, the crisp hammer strikes of a master smith at the forge.

It wasn't until the Schubert Fantasy in C major that Nel delivered the sort of rousing theatrics that fit with the stereotype of the classical pianist. Unapologetically romantic and tempestuous, this sonata evokes the mood of midsummer, when fireworks – literal and emotional – are the norm. The piece goes in for melodic thunderstorms, and Nel delivered them like a Jove gleefully hurling lightning from on high. And when the piece descended into tragedy, the Long Center's Hamburg Steinway – the piano that Nel himself recommended for Dell Hall – sank into the dungeons below the staff, sending up dark tones with the inky gloss of the instrument itself. The work is so rich in emotional extremes that, played by less artful hands, it could come off as hammy. But Nel handled it with such exquisite modulation and soulfulness that he took it beyond the melodramatic to the deeply heartfelt.

Spring. Autumn. High summer. By the end of this concert (which, by the by, included three encores), you could be forgiven for not knowing what weather you would be walking out into. What you could be sure of, though, was that you'd heard both a piano and its player who were every bit as versatile as promised and that in his sublime renditions of so many varied works of glorious music, Anton Nel proved himself a man for all seasons.

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