Gustavo Romero makes an ideal ambassador for the music of Franz Schubert. San Diego’s most acclaimed piano prodigy who crafted an international performing career is back in town this month for his annual La Jolla Athenaeum solo recital series, this season focusing on the music of Schubert.
Sunday (July 12) at the Auditorium at TSRI Romero played the second of his four recitals, featuring two of the expansive later piano sonatas, a set of “Moments musicaux,” D. 780, and, for contrast, Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op. 1.
Musicologist Richard Taruskin has described Schubert’s mature music as discursive, ruminative and luminous, a style whose intention induces reverie rather than excitement. A cool, highly focused interpreter at the keyboard, Romero eschews every superficial gesture that might distract his own or his listeners’ attention to the music, an approach that fits the Schubert profile with astonishing congruence.
Although intimate and diffuse, Schubert’s G Major Sonata, D. 894, unfolded as a constant invitation to enter its spell in Romero’s hands. In its opening movement, tentative waltz themes drifted in and out of darker, bolder textures, contrasting elements that Romero deftly interwove into a hazy chiaroscuro. In the Menuetto, he developed the sense of urgency its repeated chord theme suggested, judiciously avoiding the polar extremes of playful and portentous.
The C Minor Sonata, D. 958, one of the composer’s masterful three final sonatas, called for greater technical prowess, which Romero supplied with assurance. To bring off the sonata’s finale, a wild, careening tarantella, Romero unleashed his most athletic leaps up and down the keyboard, including perilous cross hand gymnastics. Thrilling as this display was, his tarantella evoked the perfectly choreographed dance of a well-trained corps de ballet rather than a crowd of manic Italian peasants.
I was impressed by Romero’s solemn, immaculately paced Adagio, whose sinuous themes brought to mind the rich ornamentation of a Bach chorale prelude. As in the lovely “Moments musicaux” that opened his recital, in this reflective sonata movement he coaxed sumptuous, warm textures from the concert grand’s middle range, a refinement that has always been one of Romero’s calling cards.
For me, the inclusion of Berg’s Piano Sonata provided an island of emotional liberation in Schubert’s ocean of introversion. Giving his audience a taste of the Second Viennese School in this Schubert program—Schubert is frequently though not always identified with the First Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven—proved a sage programming idea. Next week Romero will offer a bit of Webern, and on the final Sunday program he will provide some Schoenberg, the founder of the Second Viennese School.
Romero’s Berg aptly balanced explosive angst with more formal retreats and indecision that the young composer portrayed with such immediacy. The drama contained in this single movement sonata prefigured the trajectory of a composer who would write two of the landmark operas of the last century, Wozzeck and Lulu. Poor Schubert never quite found the key to writing a convincing opera.