We all knew she was good. And we all knew that she was one of that rare breed, a romantic pianist. But she has finally delivered powerful proof in a much more permanent form than her exciting recitals and concertos. In fact, she has even outdone those.
Cabot pianist Diane Huling has just released her first solo album, “Virtuosic Piano Music,” celebrating the grandeur of romantic pianism, and it reveals a formidable artist. She will celebrate the release with a solo recital at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6, at the Barre Opera House. Music of Bach, Scarlatti, Mozart, Chopin and Rachmaninoff, included on the programs of her autumn concert tour, will be performed.
The new recording, nearly an hour and 20 minutes in length, is filled with musically probing and expert performances of virtuoso piano music by Rameau, Scarlatti, J.S. Bach, Mozart and Chopin. They were beautifully recorded earlier this year by East Montpelier producer and sound engineer Colin McCaffrey at the Barre Opera House on its excellent Steinway concert grand piano.
Huling, who received performance degrees in piano from the Eastman School of Music, with postgraduate work at the Westminster Choir College, moved to Vermont in the early 1990s. Previously, she performed as a soloist, chamber musician and art song accompanist throughout North America, South America and Europe. She performed extensively as a duo partner with violinist Michael Appleman, former concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra; flutist Karen Kevra, and soprano Celina Moore. Huling has also performed as soloist with the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra, of which she was founding music director.
But, for nearly two decades, Huling’s extensive duties as professor of music at Johnson State College kept her largely off the concert stage. When illness forced an early retirement, she threw herself into piano. During the last decade, she not only rebuilt her technique, it rose to a new height of virtuosity, with brilliant performances of monumental works like Liszt’s B minor Sonata and Brahms’ Sonata No. 3. And with this CD, she has brought both her technique and artistry to new heights.
Unusually, particularly for Vermont, Huling is a “romantic” musician. That is, she is focused primarily on the flowing line and is freer with rhythmic expression than “classical” musicians, who adhere more strictly to the composer’s structure. Famous romantic pianists include Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Philippe Entremont, where Robert Casadesus, Rudolf Serkin and Claudio Arrau were classical. Consequently, they often have very different takes on the same music. Most of today’s pianists are something of a mix of both.
Huling though is a romantic at heart, so it’s no surprise that she excels at the music of Frederic Chopin. Her performance of five etudes, including the “Aeolian Harp,” “Revolutionary,” “Black Key,” plus the F minor Nouvelle Etude No. 1, and F minor, Op. 10, No.9, has a naturalness that makes them seem inevitable. They are played with a surety, subtlety, and an outright virtuosity that makes them irresistible.
Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 proved a larger-scale outlet for Huling’s love of the composer. Beginning with an invitingly muted approach, she tells the story, using a natural rubato (subtle rhythmic manipulation) building to a grand finale. It is a powerful personal statement.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, that most classical of composers, is where the romantics get into trouble, because their personal expressiveness often detracts from Mozart’s perfect structure. But Huling harnesses her romantic tendencies for a grand and virtuosic performance of the Sonata No. 8 in A major, K. 310. Her performance of the slow movement, Andante cantabile, employs her romanticism in service of the classical structure, and the result is simply sublime.
Another major work is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903, actually written for harpsichord. Here, Huling emphasizes the lyricism of the fantasy, and delivers the structure of the fugue with clarity and restrained passion, resulting in a sense of grandeur.
The CD opens with the Gavotte and Variations in A minor by Jean Philippe Rameau, another harpsichord work. Here Huling employs the colors of the piano and a deft touch to deliver the joy of this Baroque work.
The Baroque harpsichord music of Domenico Scarlatti was co-opted by pianists long ago. Sheer virtuosity with just the right amount of romantic lyricism makes five short one-movement sonatas scintillating. The rapid-fire finger technique is riveting in itself, but Huling’s musicality makes for a richly rewarding experience.
Diane Huling plays in the grand manner of a bygone era, and what a joy it is.