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Saturday, June 2, 2012

Pavel Steidl Review

Note: I’m attending the 2012 Guitar Weekend, jointly sponsored by the Cleveland Institute of Music and Guitars International. As a nice break from my ongoing project, I’ll review each of the four recitals.

Pavel Steidl
8 pm—June 1, 2012
Mixon Hall, Cleveland Institute of Music

In this cookie-cutter world of concert guitarists who are often indistinguishable from one another, Czech guitarist Pavel Steidl is an original. If you want poker-faced seriousness in the straight-laced tradition of stuffy classical concerts, you’ve come to the wrong man. But if you want to see and hear an artist who makes music jump off the page, Steidl is your man.

And see him you must, as well as hear him, for Steidl’s performance is a visual extravaganza. When appropriate to the music, his playing is choreographed with facial tics and hand gestures that convey every emotional twist and turn. If Marcel Marceau had been a guitarist rather than a mime, he might have performed something like this. In a lesser hands, this approach might devolve into rampant silliness. Happily, Steidl isn’t a lesser artist.

Steidl performed his entire recital on a copy of a 19th century Stauffer, built by luthier Bernhard Kresse. This was an apt choice for a program of almost all 19th century music, with one side trip to Bach. It also put to rest any suspicion that a 19th century guitar lacks the punch to put across the virtuoso music of its time. Okay, it’s not going to out-shout a modern Gernot Wagner. But with the right player, it can certainly hold its own.

Steidl’s playing of 19th century music is thoroughly in the atavistic tradition of the improvising virtuoso who sees the printed page as a starting point. This tradition sadly is rare in our own age of strict fidelity to the score. To be sure, some of today’s classical players gingerly step beyond the written text. But where most others dip a toe in the water, Steidl shouts “cannonball!” and flings himself into the pool. He’s a welcome reminder that in an earlier age audiences wanted to be astonished, and weren’t shy about voicing displeasure when the artist didn’t deliver. I doubt Steidl would ever be hooted out of a 19th century drawing room.

To be sure, this is a dangerous game to play. On last night’s program, Steidl’s approach worked best for the Ferrante, Mertz, and Paganini. I’m not convinced that it suits Sor, which was also on the program. Be that as it may, Steidl wasn’t put on this earth to play music as I think it should be played. I’m glad to hear another opinion of how Sor should be played, even if it crosses a line that I wouldn’t cross. To Steidl’s credit, he had the good judgment to tone down his unbuttoned approach during his performance of Bach’s Chaconne. Here Steidl was all business, albeit somewhat more romanticized than most. It suited me, as I often find performances of Bach too sterile.

Steidl closed with a encore of his own composition, an eerie work that included a bit of Tuvan throat singing. You read that right, and I won’t try to describe this otherworldly effect. Suffice it to say that if you haven’t yet experienced Steidl live, you owe it to yourself to do so. He had last night’s audience eating out of his hand.

—(Next up: Gaëlle Solal and Soloduo)—

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