As part of the Cleveland International Piano Competition’s indefatigable efforts to increase Cleveland’s profile as a major destination for pianists, the organization offers a concert series in competition off-years. The third installment of this year’s series saw the return of Italian pianist Roberto Plano, a laureate of the competition having taken first prize in 2001 – and as of late, professor at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Plano’s program was neatly bisected with a selection of solo works prefacing a major chamber work, the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Kulas Hall serving as the venue of choice. The solo selections were wonderfully diverse, forming a colorful travelogue from Italy to South America by way of a lovely layover in Spain.

Roberto Plano
© Gregory Wilson

Plano opened the evening with the Notturno excerpted from Respighi’s Six Pieces for Solo Piano. Respighi is certainly not a composer known for his piano music, but his modest body of work for the instrument certainly merits at least an occasional hearing. Undulating, atmospheric tremolos supported the piece’s gentle melody, generally subdued but at one point growing to a fiery outpouring, only to peacefully subside. Liszt’s Sposalizio followed, a work from the Italian book of the Années de pèlerinage wherein the composer portrayed various figures of the Italian Renaissance as inspired from his extensive travels. The work in question refers to Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin, which currently resides at Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera – not far from Plano’s hometown of Varese. Plano approached the work as a stately evocation of the Renaissance master, bringing out Liszt’s sense of wonderment to culminate in muscular octaves, though it was the delicate filigree at the end that was perhaps most striking.

Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra is a favorite of guitarists. Plano presented it in his own piano transcription, marked by rapid-fire repeated notes, a technical legerdemain that was utterly hypnotic. While the Italian pieces made less of an impression, it was here that Plano found his stride. Next on the itinerary was Villa-Lobos, namely Impressões seresteiros (“Minstrel Impressions”) from the ambitious suite Ciclo Brasileiro. A commanding flourish initiated the work, in the grand Lisztian tradition but infused with a Tropic of Capricorn exoticism – a dazzling tour de force. The final stop was in Argentina, with two works of Ginastera. The brief Milonga was unassuming yet intoxicating; the five-fold Suite de danzas criollas offered greater stylistic contrast, beginning with impressionistic tone clusters, the same device used to percussive effect in the second selection. A lyrical centerpiece followed, while the subsequent Calmo e poetico was just that, all but frozen – quite jarring for a dance suite – and the concluding movement brought the suite to a thunderous close.

Roberto Plano and the Omni Quartet
© Gregory Wilson

Following intermission, matters turned to chamber music in the Piano Quintet in F minor of Brahms, with Plano joining the Omni Quartet, comprised of Cleveland Orchestra string players – violinists Amy Lee and Alicia Koelz, violist Joanna Zakany and cellist Charles Bernard (guesting for usual member Tanya Ell). The passionate beginnings buttressed the gravitas of the work, with piano and strings tightly in sync. One wanted perhaps a richer, more burnished tone from the strings, but blame the rather dry acoustics of Kulas Hall. The repeat of the exposition was observed to lay the groundwork for the expansive development, and ultimately, a bold, symphonic close. The slow movement made for quite the contrast in its gentle cantabile, though it was the scherzo that served as the highlight. Beginning with a cello ostinato, vigorous, forward-thinking syncopations were given at frantic, breakneck speed, the central trio providing a burst of lyricism. A skeletal recitative opened the finale, bringing to mind the weight of Beethoven’s late quartets. By way of an encore, the scherzo was repeated, as robust and spirited as before.