Review: Carson Becke has some wow moments in Sonatas of the East

Carson Becke performed in Southminster United Church Friday night.

Friday was International Piano Day, so it felt especially appropriate to review Carson Becke in the final concert of this season’s Master Piano Recital Series.

The Ottawa-area native is in the final stretch of a PhD at Oxford, but has returned home for the past few summers to run the Festival Pontiac Enchanté at Venturing Hills Farm in Luskville, QC (Becke plans to move back to the area permanently in the fall). However, Friday night’s recital marked his first appearance at any of the concert series produced by Roland Graham’s UPbeat! Productions at Southminster United.

Under the title Sonatas of the East, Becke’s program featured an all-Chopin first half, including the B-flat minor sonata. Scriabin’s third sonata anchored the second half.

Becke opened with Chopin’s Polonaise Fantaisie and the two Op. 55 Nocturnes. In the first, his interpretation underscored the work’s spontaneous, improvisatory facets. I appreciated the feeling of space he created between sections, and the luxuriantly drawn out rolled chords.

Certainly Becke is a strong technician, and a sensitive musician. But I felt there was sometimes a disconnect between his intent and his delivery. His sound can be quite dry and cool, and while he is able to bring out the score’s inner melodies and voice leading, it’s not always executed with the warm, quality bel canto legato that is so essential to Chopin. This was especially noticeable in the E-flat major Nocturne, which sounded leaden and never achieved the illusion of a soaring operatic duet.

A lot of these issues seemed to be rooted in biomechanics. Becke plays with a lot of tension in his shoulders, upper arms, even his jaw. He also has a tendency to curl his torso inwards toward the keyboard in tricky passages.

When he exhales, relaxes, sits up straight and pulls his shoulders blades down and back, there is an immediate, noticeable improvement in the freedom of his arm and therefore in the quality of the sound.

Becke dedicated his performance of the B-flat minor Sonata to his great-grandmother and first piano teacher, who passed away last week at 104 (the audience was filled not only with members of Becke’s family, but many of his great-grandmother’s friends).

Becke showed considerable guts in the way he attacked the first movement — I don’t mind if a pianist sacrifices a little accuracy for a big impact. In contrast, I found the scherzo a little too slow and cautious. But the last two movements had the wow factor I had been waiting for all evening. The Funeral March had a satisfying build in intensity and power, with hypnotic, tolling bell effects in the repeated notes, while the Presto was fantastically controlled and shaped, showing thrilling velocity and hairpin shifts in dynamics.

After the intermission, Becke began with Grieg’s G minor Ballade Variations on a Norwegian Folk Song. Becke stated the opening theme with a painter’s feel for the mysterious fog of chromatic harmonies swirling under the deceptively simple theme. The ensuing variations were similarly detailed — only the knuckle-busting final variation seemed to elude Becke’s technique, the enormous chords and jumps becoming increasingly chaotic.

Becke’s Scriabin was well-intentioned, but here again an inconsistent sound hurt the overall impression. The dynamic range was too narrow and timid, the palette bland. There has to be an element of excess to Scriabin, the emotions unrestrained, the colours opulent.

The first movement of the third sonata in particular needs to lurch and swoop just on this side of good taste. Becke’s playing felt a little beige, polite, almost apologetic. The notes were all there, but he needed to dial everything up several degrees.

For his encore, Becke stayed in the world of Russian post-romanticism with Rachmaninoff’s C major Étude-Tableau.

Share Post
Written by

Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.