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Provided photo Pianist Maria João Pires.

Music Review: Great pianist, great Beethoven

MIDDLEBURY — Hearing a great pianist play Liszt can be very exciting, but not to the degree of experiencing a great musician performing Beethoven.

Saturday’s Middlebury College Performing Arts Series audience experienced the power of Beethoven through the mind, fingers and heart of both a great musician and pianist.

Famed Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires played Beethoven’s final Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Opus 111, as if she had written it. She inhabited this powerful explosion of emotions, from stark angry passion to introspective tenderness. From the opening hammering to the quiet finale, Pires’ drive never faltered, but it did vary with the nuances of Beethoven’s ever-percolating passion.

At 71, Pires is one of the world’s finest pianists, but she is also physically small. Still, her expert ability to manipulate the instrument allowed her to create powerful crescendos and climaxes, as well as intimately tender lyricism.

More importantly, she has the musical depth and understanding to use this technique to deliver some of music’s most sophisticated piano writing. Pires’ approach to Beethoven is to inhabit the music, living every note.

Superficially, her approach is traditional, pretty much what the score asks for, but more subtly, she responded to each note personally, sharing the composer’s emotional explosiveness as well as his profundity. In a mark of greatness, every note felt inevitable.

Pires’ performance of Beethoven’s final sonata was simply great Beethoven playing — responded to by the audience with a moment of reverent silence before the tumultuous standing ovation.

Pires’ performance was part of her Partitura Project, in which different generations learn and perform together. She was joined by her student, 29-year-old French pianist Julian Brocal, in Maurice Ravel’s piano four-hands adaptation of Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” Their performance was a joy of orchestral colors.

Brocal was also heard in two solo works by Ravel, Sonatine and “Miroirs.” Although he possesses a fine virtuoso technique, albeit with a limited tonal color palette, Brocal seemed to have no personal connection with the music. The audience did, however, enjoy his brilliance in the overtly virtuosic passages.

Pires also delivered a brilliant performance of Beethoven’s penultimate Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Opus 110. There were a few moments of dropped intensity, but her approach was no less profound than in the Opus 111 — thanks to decades of experience coupled with great personal musical depth.

To hear Beethoven played at this level is both a joy and an honor.

Middlebury College

The Middlebury College Performing Arts Series will present the Jupiter String Quartet, with violist Roger Yapping and cellist Natasha Brofsky, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 23, at the Mahaney Center for the Arts’ Robison Hall in Middlebury. Tickets are $25, $20 for seniors; go online to

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