Jorge Luis Prats’s performance was absolutely breathtaking, and one had the sense of being at a historic recital, of discovering a hugely gifted, yet virtually unknown, artist.
By Susan Miron.
Cuban pianist Jorge Luis Prats made a huge impression at his recital last spring at Boston Conservatory and re-appeared to a capacity crowd in Seully Hall in the Piano Masters Series on Tuesday night. Prats is in the grand tradition of pianists with epic techniques (he hates this to be pointed out), epic lives, and epic personalities. Now in his mid-50s, Prat spent some 30 years in Cuba (visa restrictions) after winning the requisite, big international competition and has only in the past few years started concertizing and recording, both to tremendous acclaim.
I cannot, in my half-century of classical concert going, recall an artist who was so completely at ease on stage that he seemed to be rethinking the concert as he went along, illustrating pieces he was about to play, and even, after intermission, discussing and playing excerpts from the piece he had played 20 minutes before, as if he had just had a sudden inspiration he needed to share. Much of what he played actually sounded improvised, and people remarked that they wondered if it was, because they had never heard many of the notes before. But the notes were all from the page, refracted through a very great technique, a brilliant imagination, and an uncanny Cuban sense of rhythm.
The recital itself was anchored by the two fiendishly difficult pillars of the Spanish piano repertoire, “Enrique Granados’s (1876–1916) Goyescas and Isaac Albeniz’s (1860–1909) Three Pieces from Iberia. Piano aficionados know these pieces—and most Spanish repertoire—from the legendary performances and recordings of the late, great, Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, who set the bar extremely high for those who follow her. Prats seemed totally unfazed by the challenges these works and the other pieces on the program presented (including by the legendarily difficult Ferruccio Busoni). He appeared, in fact, to be having the time of his life. This is a performer born to be on the stage as both pianist and raconteur.
In fact, it was his lengthy disquisition on keys and how composers used them (as an “encore”) in his appearance last spring that was, for many in the audience, the highlight of his recital. Nothing, including the music itself, seemed particularly scripted; an air of improvisation reigned from the moment Prats stepped on stage until he reluctantly dragged himself off after well over two and a half hours later. The program began with five movements from Goyescas: Los Majos Enamorados (The Majos in Love) (1911), which Prats felt compelled after intermission to talk about and then illustrate with many excerpts. This led him to another place, the Italian baroque, where he showed us different types of stacatto in Vivaldi and Scarlatti (he began playing Scarlatti’s famous E Major Sonata, K. 360). “In baroque music,” he explained, “long notes were long, short notes, very short.”
This applied to how he interpreted Granados. To Prats, every composer has connections to and affinities with other composers.
Prats negotiated the incredibly challenging Goyescas in an unsentimental yet deeply stirring manner. It came to life twice, once in his magisterial performance, and then when he returned to detail the plot, chatting aboutthe majo falling in love with the maja, the majo going to jail and dying, the lovely nightingale in life and in death. His little lecture was enlightening and enjoyable.
“Suite Havana” by Félix Guerrero (1916–2004) has an interesting back story which, needless to say, Prats talked about, including telling us how he had put this suite together with unpublished pieces by Guerrero. This was, I believe, the world premiere of this composition. A close friend of Guererro, Prats was amazed that such “a short and ugly man” could have had six beautiful wives—all singers. “The last wife was fifty years younger,” Prats smiled. “The elegance of these pieces,” he remarked, “is something astonishing. He was a great man, a great friend, a great Cuban.” When he plays them, he said, “I feel like I’m in Havana.” The “Suite” is quite a wonderful piece and deserves many more hearings and, I hope, a recording by Prats.
Busoni’s “Chamber-Fantasy on Bizet’s ‘Carmen’” was another technical killer—lots of right hand octaves played near the speed of light, familiar tunes wildly embellished, ending shockingly with three one-note attacks, the latter signifying the end of Carmen, of whom Prats admitted “she is the one who fulfills all my wishes.”
Finally, Three Pieces from Iberia (1906-1909) by Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909) ended the written part of the program. The playing was absolutely breathtaking, and one had the sense of being at a historic recital, of discovering a hugely gifted, yet virtually unknown, artist. Of course, there were encores. He began with “Vals de dolor” by Villa Lobos, with its heartbreaking harmonies and wrenching melodies. “What do you want me to play?” he then asked the audience, and obliged with a lovely performance of Hector Villa Lobos’s “The Broken Music Box.” Finally, he decided to play Mozart’s B Flat sonata’s third movement and played it in a way I had never imagined, very fast and rather volcanically. I was surprised that this was the end. I guess I’ll have to buy Prats’s CDs. I was actually ready to hear him play another hour or two. He’s that extraordinary.