Last Friday night, instead of performing a dazzling all-Czech program at Mandel Hall, pianist Andras Schiff was ill and held up in Europe. In the first of the evening's many substitutions, Schiff was replaced by Arnaldo Cohen, a Brazilian pianist of considerable credentials. He was the first prize winner of the 1972 Busoni International Piano Competition and has a respectable discography on the Vox and Bis labels. Cohen also has a history of knightly, show-saving heroics: He first made his mark in the European music world by standing in for Martha Argerich at the Concertgebouw.
The program of Bach, Brahms, and Chopin seemed rather conservative at first glance, especially when compared with the hard-edged Smetana and Janacek we were promised. Granted, on such short notice, playing old favorites is acceptable. Nonetheless, walking into the concert, I expected few barriers to be broken.
To make matters worse, Cohen was to start his recital with a piece that is very close to my heart, the Chaconne in D minor, from Bach's second partita for unaccompanied violin, arranged for piano. This was the second substitution, one that did nothing to heighten my expectations. I had heard transcriptions of the piece before for guitar, for harmonica, and forof all thingsacid-lead rave synthesizer. I prefer the original.
Unassuming and diminutive, Cohen took the stage without much ceremony either from himself or from the audience. He made no apologies for not being Andras Schiff, and put on none of the airs of The Great and Powerful Pianist. Cohen made himself very difficult to resent, even for those of us who were inclined to do so. He was graceful at the keyboard, but uncharismatic. I didn't hear Arnaldo Cohenonly Bach. Cohen must have played superbly, because I was never jarred from my dialogue with the composer. I forgot that the piano was supposed to be a violin, forgot that I wasn't getting what I expected. I even forgot that I was at a concert. A grateful audience then reminded me.
The next piece on the program was Brahms's set of variations and fugue on a theme by Handel. The genre of variations is a taxing one: We are given 64 bars to memorize a little ditty, and are then expected to marvel at the ever-increasing complication of the next 20 64-bar sets. It is like a stylistic exercise in which you write the same sentence 10 times, phrasing the same thought in 10 different ways. Variations, as I know them, demonstrate a composer's skill but do not make use of it. It is difficult to create a grand arc in 64 bar fragments. Of course, some might object that my own cherished Chaconne in D minor is also a set of variations, only on a chord progression as opposed to a theme. And I would respond: Yes, but I like those variations. Is this unfounded and prejudiced? Perhaps.
I believe that Cohen, because of his unimposing carriage and style, was able to provide Friday's audience with a better way of hearing variations. He was not out to prove that his technical mastery was the equal of the mounting difficulty of the piece. Rather, he was gently demonstrating how this equals that, how the first variation equals the last and how to substitute. Cohen's Brahms was like a gorgeously constructed mathematical proof; he pulled the rug out from under Brahms' virtuosic digressions and showed us an eloquent whole.
To end the concert backwards, Cohen finished with 24 Chopin preludes, 24 beginnings of the end. Which is not to say that he played them at all poorly. His performance was quite to the contrary. However, I felt that Cohen was ever so slightly embarrassed to play them. He rushed through the first 12 or so, hardly waiting between one and the next. He seemed to undercut the swooping grandeur of some preludes and not to have much patience for the exaggerated pathos of others. He was brusque, and did not care to coax sentimentality out of the piano.
That is, until the 20th in C minor (key of all keys), when a cell phone cut through Chopin's meanderings. This prelude is perhaps the most aggressive of all 24, and our reserved pianist finally succumbed to feeling. He played the last four preludes with a vengeance, punishing both the piano and the unfortunate woman with the intrusive cell phone.
If the audience at Mandel Hall was upset over the Schiff cancellation, they were certainly won over by Arnaldo Cohen. His dynamic contrasts were subtle and wide-ranging, his style was never overbearing, and his interpretations were clear and consistent. But what was most striking about him was one's tendency to not even notice him; that is, that he himself is hardly striking at all. He plays as a musician who does not force his personality onto his music, but lets it stand alone, apart even from himself.
The applause didn't quite bring the audience to its feet, but it came close. Cohen played two encores, the second being a peg-legged Brazilian tune I had in my head for hours afterward. This choice tickled a few laughs out of the audience, letting slip a glimmer of humor under the pianist's self-effacing style.
For more information on Arnaldo Cohen, visit www.voxcd.com/arnaldocohen. For more information about the concert series at Mandel Hall, visit chicagopresents.uchicago.edu or call (773) 702-8068. The next concert is tonight, Tuesday, October 19 at 7:30 P.M., featuring the Pacifica Quartet.