Appearances by the celebrated pianist Taka Kigawa are fairly rare in New York, despite having adopted the city as his home. His annual recital at (Le) Poisson Rouge in Manhattan’s West Village has, for some years, been his only engagement in the city. It’s a good room for him and he certainly knows it, a rare nightclub setting for classical music in the city, relaxed but serious, with a stage that affords a modest level of star power, a role Kigawa easily fills. His recent engagement filled his quota for 2021, with a stunning reading of Boulez and Ligeti. In a dark t-shirt (purple, perhaps, the stage lights make it hard to tell) and shoulder length hair (black enough to shimmer blue), Kigawa easily outsized his subjects but did so with an artistry that lived up to the stage presence.

Taka Kigawa
© (Le) Poisson Rouge (2018)

This was, very much, Kigawa’s recital – not Boulez’, not Ligeti’s. The force of personality might have gotten in the way had the flair on pianoforte not been so strong. He delivered Boulez’s Third Piano Sonata in isolated phrases, not giving undue pause but affording each its own emphasis, like interconnected islands, stressing the brevity and the plentitude of ideas. His penchant for the dramatic was evident in the flourishes with which he removed pages of the score, (and rather unusually, in his dispensing of the score altogether mid-piece, as if he knew best, playing the rest of the concert from memory.) Fortunately, his playing backs up his persona. 

His pedaling was soft and constant, like a nervous driver, his dynamic nearly uniform; the performance was all in the phrasing, as if taking “timing is everything” to be an edict. He ended the sonata in stillness, holding the sustain pedal now for an achingly long time. 

The self-serious Boulez worked better in the red-curtained nightclub than did Ligeti, whose virtuosic demands Kigawa met with a seeming ease but whose playfulness was lost in transit. The eight etudes he selected (culled from all three books) were more focused, more insistent, as he was forced to switch from Sunday drive to high speed rail. His command over two-handed counterpoint was exquisite.

Boulez’ Second Piano Sonata struck a happy – well, perhaps not happy but satisfactory – balance between the preceding pieces, which may not have had as much to do with his playing as it did with his deft programming. Each was presented on its own, with intermissions between each of the roughly half-hour selections. It was a long program, strenuous even as a listener, and to have in the final selection a sense of order instilled was certainly welcome, as was his gracefully measured reading of the slow second movement, as if spun from elastic. And as exhilarating as the first two parts of the recital were, it was the third part that was most satisfying. Here, it seemed, Kigawa was beholden to the composer, unable to fully tame the demands of the music, unable to claim the voice as his own. As a result, it was here – as servers circled the room delivering bar tabs – that Kigawa’s own artistry shown most brightly.