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Diane Walsh, pianist: Reviews

Pianist Diane Walsh’s sensitive performance of the Chopin Concerto No. 2 in F Minor (Op. 21) was a throwback to a salon concert of the 1800’s. Somehow tuner Matt Guggenheim made the Steinway sound like a Pleyel, or maybe it was just Walsh’s touch in the high treble. I could listen to her string-of-pearls portamento scales and passage-work forever.

The pianist’s independence reminded me of harpsichordist Wanda Landowska—‘You play Bach your way and I’ll play it his way.” She demanded space for her interpretation and got it. For the most part, the orchestra in a Chopin concerto is an accompaniment, but it sometimes asserts itself in surprising ways. A horn call in the third movement jolted people out of their seats, like a racehorse hearing the post, and the climax got a bit muddy, but who cares? It was a magical transportation back in time, complete with an encore of Liszt’s “La Campanella,” which I never thought to hear again in my lifetime.

Both concerto and encore got a well-deserved standing ovation.

"Guest David Neely conducts the Portland Symphony with clarity" [headline]

Diane Walsh presented Chopin [Concerto No. 2] as more of a Classicist than a Romantic, partly by pedaling lightly, and partly by playing the solo line with a clarity that focussed on its rationality rather than on its perfume. Walsh's reading also had a buoyant, singing quality. For listeners who craved more Romantic virtuosity, Walsh gave a dazzling performance of the Liszt-Paganini La Campanella as an encore.

The pianist Diane Walsh opened the 20th season of the Noonday Concert series on Oct. 8 with a 40-minute program that included Bach’s Partita No. 4 in D (BWV 828) and William Bolcom's “Graceful Ghost Rag.” Walsh was for many years a mainstay of the concert world in New York, with frequent appearances as a soloist and chamber player, and a stint on Broadway, where she was both the music director and on-stage pianist in Moisés Kaufman’s "33 Variations," a meditation on Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” that starred Jane Fonda. Walsh moved to Portland last year and now teaches at Colby College.

Pianists who play Bach’s harpsichord music on the modern piano have a range of interpretive options. Some find ways of alluding to the harpsichord’s needle-sharp articulation without jettisoning the piano’s flexibility. Others play the music as if it were actually written for the piano, with all the dynamic freedom the piano allows.

Walsh’s rendering of the Partita – a work included on her most recent recording, an all-Bach set – draws on both those possibilities, but aims at a different target. Her deference to the harpsichord was evident in her crisp, stylish ornamentation, and with phrasing that had the elegance that harpsichordists command almost as a birthright. You could not accuse her of going overboard with pianistic dynamics alien to the older instrument. Yet the impression she created in her stately, warm-toned performance of the Ouverture, and which she sustained throughout the Partita, was that she regards neither the harpsichord nor the piano as fully adequate for this music.

Instead, her sound, gestures and coloration suggested that she thinks of the Partita in orchestral terms, and the most winning aspect of her performance was that she was able to create the illusion of orchestral heft while sacrificing nothing of the transparency that Bach’s counterpoint demands. She also did a fine job of characterizing the individual dance movements, particularly the Allemande, which floated with a gentle sweetness, and the closing Gigue, which was a torrent of energy. The Bolcom required a significant shifting of gears but proved a wonderful concert closer. As both a composer and a pianist, Bolcom is a master of many styles, and his glosses on antique popular styles have always been especially entertaining, mainly because he has the moves down so well. His “Graceful Ghost Rag,” like many works authentically of the ragtime era, has one foot in the salon and the other in a saloon: Syncopations and bluesy turns are offset by a sophisticated but understated humor, and an equally low-key virtuosity. Walsh gave those qualities their due. After the high-flying Bach, it was the perfect way to bring listeners down to earth before sending them back to their daily rounds.

The pianist Diane Walsh plays extended excerpts from the Diabelli Variations, elegantly, in full view of the audience. In a way Ms. Walsh is a character in the play....Meanwhile, at preview performances of "33 Variations", Ms. Walsh's splendid recording for JDR (Jonathan Digital Recordings), available in the lobby, has been selling "like hotcakes," Mr. Kaufman said.

Diane Walsh, an underrated pianist (even after her Broadway stint in “33 Variations”), plays an underrated Schubert work, the smaller of the A minor sonatas, a personal favorite. The first movement’s second theme is one of Schubert’s most melting inspirations even before he sweetens it with triplets in the recapitulation. Ms. Walsh plays it beautifully and gives a fine account of the posthumous B flat Sonata, which is rated right about where it should be: at the top.

...a performer of great honesty and integrity.... [Beethoven's] Sonata in E major Op. 109, one of the sublime masterpieces in all of music, got a performance worthy of its status--lyrical, contemplative, powerful, and very moving.

Michael Manning - Boston Globe

The resourceful pianist Diane Walsh begins her new recording with a dynamic performance of Barber's sonata. By placing this compact 20-minute work in context with major sonatas by Prokofiev and Bartok as well as a set of eight intriguing preludes by the Swiss composer Frank Martin, Ms. Walsh invites listeners to hear it as a formidable modern masterwork. Moreover, while she brings plenty of Romantic sweep and arching lyricism to her performance, her incisive, spiky and, where called for, percussive playing reclaims the work from its neo-Romantic trappings. The first movement surges forward in this performance, alternating statements of its grimly nervous, dotted-rhythm theme with melancholic lyrical flights. Ms. Walsh makes the short, playful scherzo sound ingeniously intricate by pristinely executing the scampering figurations and maximizing the effect of the constant shifts between duple and triple meter. The slow movement, a lament, is performed with sensitive restraint. And Ms. Walsh brings unflagging stamina and bravura to the finale, an onrushing, stunningly complex fugue with a hellbent coda. Her performance of Prokofiev's Sonata No. 2 exults in the music's turbulent energy and sarcastic wit. The Martin preludes - pensive, elusive works with loose tonal moorings - are a real discovery. Ms. Walsh gives a fearless account of Bartok's sonata, music that sounds as modern today as it must have at its 1926 premiere. With its pummeling octave passages and thick, finger-twisting chords, this score should carry a stamp from the surgeon general's office warning pianists that playing it could cause injury to the hands. But Ms. Walsh dispatches it with vigor and authority.

Anthony Tommasini - New York Times each work she brought not only 
a lovely tone and immaculate technique, but a deep sense of personal conviction.

Washington Post

. . . has already almost all the attributes of greatness. The power and animation in her playing made a great impression. I particularly admired . . . the range and beauty of her tone.

The Daily Telegraph, London

Originally issued by Music and Arts, Diane Walsh's 1990 recital devoted to four pillars from the first half of the 20th century receives a new and hopefully permanent lease on life via the Bridge label. Her intelligent virtuosity offers pleasure and insight in equal doses. The disc opens with a satisfying account of the oft-recorded Barber Sonata.... The harmonic challenges, textural contrasts, and expressive opportunities offered in Frank Martin's 1947-48 set of eight preludes are too compelling for pianists to ignore any longer. Walsh's caring, conscientious pianism lovinlgly makes their case.... Walsh's performance of the Prokofiev and Bartok sonatas boast plenty of rhythmic verve and pinpointed accents while taking into account the piano's non-percussive potential. It's good to have this first-rate release back in the catalog, complete with the pianist's excellent annotations. Warmly recommended.

Walsh distinguishes herself, however, through her willingness to play [Schubert's] music a little bit more romantically.  She lingers on important notes and infuses more yearning and tension in her slow movements, especially in the cadenza-like stretches. The other important difference is that her release has some truly outstanding and exciting tracks. I found her reading of II of the big B-flat Sonata one of the best I have ever heard. The pathos at the start is great, but the bottled energy of the second theme--with its irrepressible left-hand staccatos--is even more delectable.  Walsh also does a fine job with the third and final movement of the A-minor Sonata (D 784).  Her fine fingerwork propels the scales and arpeggios forward in a truly fast and thrilling manner.

Brent Auerbach - American Record Guide Review

Schubert poured his life into his music, as can partly be heard in these transcendent works. The A-minor Sonata, Op. 143, D. 784, reflects the composer's mood changes in music of fierce and serene beauty. Similar angst pervades the Sonata in B-flat major, published posthumously, though wit and delight also abound. Diane Walsh plays both scores with supreme command of phrasing, dynamics and structure. Her performances take the listener deeply into Schubert's uniquely poetic world.

The seasoned American pianist's performances of two Schubert sonatas are as fine as any on disc. She has a keen feel for Schubert's sometimes elusive harmonic structures, and phrases rise and fall with vocal sensitivity. Add gorgeous recorded sound-this from a boutique label-and you've got a high recommendation.

A romantic pianist with a finely honed, expressive temperament, Diane Walsh played an exquisite recital at Le Petit Trianon Theatre, San Jose, Saturday, October 30, courtesy of the Steinway Society the Bay Area. A small but enthralled audience sat quite mesmerized by Walsh’s program of Liszt and Schumann, which combined Old-World lyricism and American technical finesse in an uncommon alchemy of rare and poignant beauty.

This is the first volume of what is expected to be Schubert's complete piano sonatas--an impressive challenge for any pianist to undertake. I was won over by the beauty of the playing and the untroubled interpretive smoothness. Walsh spins out the line with great attention to nuance and color-serenely moving, always song-like, and expressive.

Alan Becker - American Record Guide

In Fanfare 32:5 I reviewed the first CD in Diane Walsh’s projected complete sonata cycle, and predicted it would be outstanding. The second disk is equally impressive; Diane Walsh proves again to be an interpreter of uncommon sensitivity to the special music world Schubert created. 

Diane Walsh’s reading of the great posthumous B-flat Sonata, the crowning glory in Schubert’s sonata output, is nothing short of magnificent. In all its 42-minute length there is not one misjudgment or misstep. From the opening measures of the first movement, whose  enigmatic tempo heading-- Molto moderato—has been so badly misunderstood by myriad pianists (Kissin, Richter, and Uchida among them) to mean “very slow”—one hears a perfect tempo that moves forward, always with a flexibility that matches its changing content. In the dozens of performances of this sonata that I have reviewed, the main problem in many of them is the choice of tempo for the first and second movements. Perhaps it is because this is Schubert’s final sonata, and its serious first movement evokes a reverential, solemn response; but it succeeds in pointing up a common and unwarranted criticism of Schubert regarding the length of some of his works.

Throughout this CD Diane Walsh plays Schubert with a sympathetic understanding of his unique musical personality. This translates to following the score’s many subtleties of expression without imposing any mannerisms, shaping the phrases as Schubert wrote them, and letting the music speak with its own eloquence. The excellent sound of the recording, made at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, is another plus. One more element adds to the beauty of this production: Walsh’s very personal and sensitive liner notes. These are performances to be treasured.

Susan Kagan - Fanfare Magazine

For this first volume, Walsh chose two sonatas stemming from the same year, 1825. Both are masterpieces-- very different from each other in character, but sharing the composer’s reflections on the countryside. . . . Diane Walsh would seem to be the perfect pianist for this music; she follows the score with the utmost fidelity, and her technical command, beautiful sound, and sensitive phrasing contribute to insightful performances.... Diane Walsh is one of a group of several contemporary pianists who have found an affinity with Schubert and given impressive performances on CD. Walsh proves to be a worthy addition to this assemblage, providing Schubert playing on the highest level.

Susan Kagan - Fanfare

The "Diabelli Variations" are majestically performed live by pianist Diane Walsh, in an order that has its own lyrical logic. The overall effect is traveling not just to a different time and place but also through the music of the spheres.

...An usher is stationed next to the production’s Steinway during intermission to gently steer errant hands away from the instrument. Theatergoers peer at it as if they are checking under the hood of a sleek, exotic roadster.

The seven-foot piano was chosen by Diane Walsh, whose performance serves as a vital second layer of dialogue: As the audience hears the actors refer to a particular variation or theme, Walsh—positioned on an aisle-level platform at stage right—responds from the keyboard. When words and music are combined with projections of pages from Beethoven’s sketchbooks, the result is a rich sensory experience for spectators.

Walsh’s journey with 33 Variations began when a friend, pianist Peter Vinograde, tipped her off in 2004 that Tectonic was seeking someone who could play the piece; she had performed it three months earlier in concert at Mannes College of Music, where she teaches part-time.

The fifty-eight-year-old New Yorker, who energetically attacks the flights of stairs to her third-floor dressing room, is disarmingly playful and laughs heartily. Her long and busy career as a concert hall artist—worldwide bookings, recordings with such labels as Nonesuch, Koch and Sony—has been temporarily derailed by opening-night rituals and performing the same piece eight times a week.

“There’s something very warm and family-like,” she says of the theater. Her dressing-room table is cheerfully cluttered with family photos and “a sweet note” from pal Bill Irwin, who is appearing nearby in Waiting for Godot. “I think the musician routine is a lot more ‘in and out of town in three days’ and you don’t always have the leisure to get to know people very well….So there’s something very welcoming about this.”

As musical director, Walsh worked closely with Kaufman on the selection, timing and editing of the variations to enhance the stage action. With the sound designer, she experimented with how the Steinway would declare itself.

“It’s not really concert hall acoustics here because theaters are designed to be dry so words are clear,” she explains. “There is a little bit of enhancement….We tried some amplification and some added reverb and we decided it sounded better without amplification, but keeping the reverb. So I’m in the sound system, but it’s very, very subtle and most people think that I’m not being enhanced. It’s just a little more resonant and warm.”

Classical artists such as Robert McDonald and Eugene Drucker and his wife, Roberta Cooper, have seen the show, and pianist Emanuel Ax said her Steinway sounded “wonderful” in the room. “I said thank you and left it at that,” Walsh recalls, smiling broadly.

Walsh shares the show-stopping “Fugue” scene with Grenier, who “composes” Variation No. 32 aloud to her accompaniment. As he muses about changes in key and tempo during the creative process, Walsh plays in tandem with his words.

“The tricky thing about it for him,” says Walsh admiringly, “is that he has to anticipate what I’m about to do. So he can’t just respond to something; he’s got to, in effect, call it into existence. Then you hear it in the music. So he has to know what’s happening in the music right before the thing he’s about to describe. Once I start going, I can’t really wait for him….It’s such a headlong piece.”

It was never the intention to use live music as wallpaper, Kaufman says, and marrying score to text was “a very organic process. I tried to use it as a way to continue with the narrative…a way to keep furthering the story.”

Walsh, who has released Beethoven: 33 Variations on Jonathan Digital Recordings, says this work has “tickled” her imagination. “It’s like Beethoven is playing this cosmic joke on us. Like he’s saying, ‘You want a set of variations? I’ll show you a set of variations!’” she exclaims, sweeping her arms in exaggeration. “And it has such a range of emotions, and the juxtapositions are so sharp sometimes. He goes from being incredibly boisterous and noisy to being very tender and gentle, to being tragic, to being rude again. . . . But it also makes me feel close to his personality, my own fantasy of what Beethoven was like as a person.”

The Diabelli Variations are many things to many listeners. When pressed to pick the variation that touches them personally, Walsh and Kaufman unhesitatingly choose the Fughetta, No. 24. “There’s something so unearthly beautiful about it,” enthuses Walsh. “It reminds me of Bach, so it’s very pure, but the sadness is kind of contained. It’s a perfect little miracle.”