Namekawa breathes this music …

Maki Namekawa and Philip Glass after the premiere of the Piano Sonata © Klavier-Festival Ruhr / Sven Lorenz
Maki Namekawa and Philip Glass after the premiere of the Piano Sonata © Klavier-Festival Ruhr / Sven Lorenz

On July 4th, 2019 Maki Namekawa premiered the Piano Sonata by Philip Glass at Pianofestival Ruhr in the German town of Essen. The “Salzlager” in the “Zeche Zollverein” was sold out in anticipation of the first piano sonata by the great American composer. After the performance Maki Namekawa and Philip Glass received standing ovations by the exited audience.

Malte Hemmerich of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote:

“… this happenstance gives the Festival a unity in its programming, even though geographically, it is strewn across the entire Ruhr district.  Even the hall, where the Japanese pianist, Maki Namekawa performed, is a brilliant choice.   The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, a large former industrial site in Essen, seems, in comparison to the concert hall, like a lab – an experimental space.   

What could possibly follow an evening of Beethoven?   

Mozart!  But not Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  

Namekawa, wearing a yellow gown, opens her program with Sonatina No.3

composed by the Brazilian, Mozart Camargo Guarnieri.   Just to add to the confusion, Mozart Guarnieri’s Sonatina sounds like a work by Scarlatti, but with minimalistic Samba accents.  Namekawa does not seem to be linked to the music.  Instead, she observes it externally and from quite a distance.  The music seems well thought out and controlled.  This vision helps the momentous opus of the evening, 

Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata, composed in 1909.   The one movement piece contains a multitude of music history, and combines fragments of the music of Wagner, Beethoven, and Schönberg in concentrated form.   Namekawa’s performance swells in oblique romantic gestures.  She recognizes the brutalities of individual moments, and presents the sonata as a lively cluster weighed down, in the end, by fate.  

The most memorable musical experience of the festival, however, happened at the Coal Mine.   Namekawa, now dressed in a fabulous black gown, has prepared us audibly for this moment: repetitions in the Guarnieri, dark bass fluctuations in the Berg, a shivering tremolo in the Mendelssohn.  Every one of these instances clearly points to Philip Glass’ first Piano Sonata, a minimalistic work, becoming the logical culmination of this sonata evening!

The Sonata’s construction is colorful, wild, and has exciting leaps.  The first theme, which Glass had already used in his Third Piano Sonata, composed in 2017, almost sounds the same as the halting middle-segment of a Rachmaninov Prelude.  The theme returns suddenly and is elaborated in the second movement.   This movement, filled with contrasting, counterrhythmic  rhythms is Philip Glass’ pianistic showpiece.  It also displays many of the familiar elements found in the composer’s etudes and solo works.   Commissioned by this Festival, this wild kaleidoscopic version, premiered here in Essen, at the Philharmonic Hall in Paris and the Ars Eletronica in Linz.  

 It is Glass’ most demanding pianistic creation.  The virtuosic octave leaps, are, due to their incredibly fast passage work, at the edge of technical ability.  This music is life and breath for Namekawa.  It is a prime example of how a matchless unity ensues, when the composer and the interpreter work closely together, a situation hardly achievable, when a pianist interprets time honored repertoire.”