Review: a polished Prokofiev recital by David Jalbert

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Another night, another top-notch piano performance in Ottawa.

Fans of big, old-school virtuoso pianism have been spoiled lately, with Yefim Bronfman,  Charles Richard-Hamelin,  and David Jalbert all playing here within a few days of each other.

Jalbert, who teaches at the University of Ottawa, was recently named one of the 25 greatest Canadian pianists of all time by the CBC. Jalbert isn’t as well-known as some of the other names on that list. He rarely tours internationally, teaches a lot (this summer he’s at Pianofest in the Hamptons and Orford, among others), and records judiciously.

Yet another product of the extraordinarily successful pianist “factory” that is Marc Durand’s studio at Université de Montréal, Jalbert possesses consummate technique, enlightened musicianship, and a vast curiosity. All three were on display Friday at his all-Prokofiev recital at Southminster United (Jalbert repeated the program in Montreal on Sunday).  

The first thing you notice about Jalbert (after the uncanny physical resemblance to the actor Damian Lewis) is his exceptionally beautiful sound. I’ve witnessed many pianists struggling with Southminster’s finicky, refurbished 1904 Heintzman. Although the piano has beautiful soft dynamics, it has a tendency to stall out on people trying to squeeze a lot of volume and power out of it.  Jalbert is the first pianist I’ve heard who has figured out how to get a big, juicy sound out of it without losing any richness or colour.

Jalbert’s reading of of Prokofiev’s single-movement Piano Sonata No. 1 was masterfully self-contained and almost Romantic in its vision. In the dense Eighth Sonata, Jalbert never put a fingertip wrong. There’s something eerie about such cyborg control.

 

 

That’s not to say Jalbert plays without soul: the first movement especially was full of shifting shadows, with a heavy feeling of uncertainty and expectation. In the second movement, marked “sognando”, Jalbert created a remarkable mood of foggy, telescoped detachment, less “dreamy” and more like a dimly-recalled sleepwalk.  However, I found the last movement  a little too smooth and urbane for my taste, all the points and angles polished away. I like my late Prokofiev a little less meticulous, more dangerous and nasty.

Jalbert’s imaginative storytelling powers were brought to the fore in 10 pieces from Romeo and Juliet. The technical virtuosity, while impressive, disappeared behind the compelling narrative and vivid portraiture. Jalbert is brilliant at recreating certain tonal effects from the familiar orchestra score, for example the wistful flute solo in Young Juliet or the reprise of the main theme in the saxophone in Montagues and Capulets. 

Prokofiev’s Suggestion diabolique was played with explosive power, but perhaps not a full dose of sulphur and brimstone. Nevertheless, it made for a showstopping encore.

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