Live Performance Reviews

    …Bengtson drew attention with his concentration, … his nearly scientific insightfulness. He impressed listeners in his clear (and difficult to define) ability to move deftly between playing as a solo pianist and as a collaborative partner. One could certainly feel the passion of these artists and their excellent knowledge of this repertoire.

(Agata Szulc-Wozniak, IKS/Poznan Cultural Magazine, Poland, Sep 2018, trans. Bednarz)

   …Bravo to Matthew Bengtson on his splendid recital this past Wednesday at Penn, the last event in the “Eighty-Eight Lately”piano series. He took on a formidable program, with music by Melinda Wagner, Berio, Carter, Nancarrow, Ligeti, Takemitsu and Bolcom. I was impressed from beginning to end, but some highlights included Matt’s management of the fantastical rhythmic knots created by Nancarrow in one of his Canons for Ursula; the power of Ligeti’s Automne a Varsovie; the astonishing rasping sound he got from the arpeggiated dense chords in Bolcom’s Premonitions (from the Twelve New Etudes), and the subtle colors of Takemitsu’s Les yeux clos II.
(Read full blog by composer/pianist Primosch, Secret Geometry)

From an all-Bach performance in Triberg, Germany:

     From the very first measures, we understand that Bengtson sees the pieces not as exercises -“for the use of the studious musical youth,” as Bach himself introduced the work – but as music with which to entertain and enchant his audience. … Bach has strewn this music with cliffs to increase its difficulty, and Bengtson impresses with the ease and precision with which he navigates them. … the second part of the recital offers music lovers present a moment of true glory. Here, the extraordinarily versatile Bengtson … addresses the
Goldberg Variations with a facility that is rarely achieved even in the canonic reference recordings. … His faultless playing, at tempi that are sometimes extreme, and with an exactness in his interpretation that is very rarely heard, make us forget that all this is also a major technical feat. The way he “changes manuals” – by repeatedly moving up an octave into the clear and soft treble of the Bösendorfer
grand, or by interjecting doubled octaves in the bass – is marvelous.

Bach in an impressive interpretation

Matthew Bengtson in top form. Exceptional agreement between artist and instrument.

TRIBERG (whg) Matthew Bengtson was one of the performers at the first chamber music festival organized by the La Gesse Foundation in 2007. This year he has decided upon a towering all-Bach program.

The program begins with the sounds of seven Preludes and their Fugues, in seven different keys, from the first part of the Well-Tempered Clavier. From the very first measures, we understand that Bengtson sees the pieces not as exercises – “for the use of the studious musical youth,” as Bach himself introduced the work – but as music with which to entertain and enchant his audience. The Preludes and Fugues come with a slight swing and the faintest trace of forward momentum, as if they were not composed for a harpsichord but specifically for this grand piano – and Bengtson does not hesitate to make use of the pedals. Nor does he restrict himself to the harpsichord’s five octaves: repeatedly, he displays the full eight octaves of his Bösendorfer concert grand. Bach has strewn this music with cliffs to increase its difficulty, and Bengtson impresses with the ease and precision with which he navigates them.

The audience is unfortunately not as large as on the previous evening, but the second part of the recital offers the music lovers present a moment of true glory. Here, the extraordinarily versatile Bengtson – he considers Alexander Scriabin and Scymanowski [sic.] his musical favorites, has been interested in jazz improvisation for years, and studied math at Harvard – addresses the Goldberg Variations with a facility that is rarely achieved even in the canonic reference recordings. The opening Aria, played in moderate tempo but nevertheless with swing, immediately shows his great interest in this music and its interpretation. Variations 5 and 15, which even on the harpsichord are only playable with crossed hands, are presented with an astonishingly relaxed precision; the appoggiaturas in the fast minor-key variations sound like thrown-in “clusters.” His faultless playing, at tempi that are sometimes extreme, and with an exactness in his interpretation that is very rarely heard, make us forget that all this is also a major technical feat. The way he “changes manuals” – by repeatedly moving up an octave into the clear and soft treble of the Bösendorfer grand, or by interjecting doubled octaves in the bass – is marvelous.

At the conclusion of the “Aria da Capo Fine,” the listeners are so enthralled by they have just have heard that they finally burst into applause only when Matthew Bengtson finally rises from the piano. He feels, too, that it has been a very special kind of evening; and contrary to his usual custom, he plays more works by Johann Sebastian Bach as an encore.

Image of the original German article

     This rather young pianist played by heart – a remarkable feat of memory that was combined with a stupendous gift of interpretation. … With the“Goldberg Variations,” which have also been called the “musical sleeping pills of an insomniac,”the virtuosic artist raised a monument for himself. … Bengtson’s audience was certainly enraptured, and demanded more with their applause. Bengtson seemed moved by the evening too, and despite having played such a demanding official program, he also presented some encores of Preludes and Fugues.

Schwarzwälder Bote no. 240, Tuesday 16 October 2012

Audience completely enraptured at Bach concert

Matthew Bengtson, playing from memory, turns the second evening of “La Gesse” into sheer listening pleasure

by Siegfried Kouba

TRIBERG — The program for the second evening concert in the Lazarus von Schwendl Hall consisted exclusively of works by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was a difficult program that nevertheless won many friends, and Matthew Bengtson turned the performance into a feast for the ears.

This rather young pianist played by heart – a remarkable feat of memory that was combined with a stupendous gift of interpretation. He was utterly focused, and so engaged that he sang along with the music. The program opened with a selection of pieces from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, a work that stands as a paradigm of its composer’s inventiveness. Bach’s heirs were well-acquainted with this work: Mozart was guided by it (KV 564), Beethoven was inspired by it, and Gounod’s “Ave Maria” famously elaborates upon the main theme. For conductor Hans von Bülow, the Well-Tempered Clavier, an encyclopedia of “Preludes and Fugues in all keys and semitones” was the “Old Testament”; Beethoven declared, of Eisenach’s son, that “he should not be called Bach [brook] but Meer [sea].”

Bengtson presented an easily comprehensible sequence: a varied stroll through scales, ornaments, canonical variations, and “equal temperament.” The Präludium of the “Aria,” in fugato style, rang out clearly; the Sinfonia and Concerto were vividly rendered, and the dance fugues displayed a special liveliness. The rendering of the “Präludium patheticum” was particularly distinct. The occasionally “swinging” effect made a visible impression on the audience.

With the “Goldberg Variations,” which have also been called the “musical sleeping pills of an insomniac,” the virtuosic artist raised a monument for himself. Only some slight surface unevenness occurred, however without diminishing the excellent overall impression. Here, too, performance from memory will exact its toll from a performer. The legendary origins of this commissioned work, an “Aria with diverse variations,” are well-known. Bach wrote them “to entertain the souls of music-lovers.” Nestled between the Arias the 30 variations are heard – they differ in the treatment of their bass and harmonies. After the 15th variation a change of form occurs, which is introduced by an Ouverture in the French style. Which variation deserved to be crowned as the best was a matter to be decided by each listener. Bach’s consistency proved his compositional maturity, a consistency borne up by the work’s fixed architecture and symmetry.

Allowing himself only very short respites, Matthew Bengtson gave shape to the entire demanding work – whose finale is written as an amusing quodlibet – in just 55 minutes. The commissioner of the work, Hermann Carl von Keyserling, surely would have slept well after hearing “his” variations, which, it is said, his house harpsichordist, Goldberg, had to repeat many times to lull him to slumber. Bengtson’s audience was certainly enraptured, and demanded more with their applause.

Bengtson seemed moved by the evening too, and despite having played such a demanding official program, he also presented some encores of Preludes and Fugues.

Picture caption: Matthew Bengtson (photo), an outstanding pianist, was heard in the La Gesse concert series. His interpretations of works by Bach were very well received by the audience.

Image of the original German article

    Matthew Bengtson … tackled Beethoven’s monumental late composition fearlessly. … [His] interpretation of Schumann’s Nachtstücke, op. 23, four short pieces inspired by the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann, transmitted the sense of the uncanny that links the Nachtstücke with Hoffmann’s writing. Read the rest on Dr. Debra Lew Harder’s blog on my December 2009 performance of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Schumann’s Nachtstücke.

    The program was nearly divided into two halves, starting with an emotional work from the end of the 19th Century … followed by works of the more recent end of the 20th Century … before going back 260 years to a work that is often considered intimidating even, sometimes, to the initiated. … For people who like to avoid something unfamiliar, this would be a challenging approach to building a program. Read the rest of Dr. Dick Strawser’s blog “Cabbages and Turnips Couldn’t Keep Me Away” on my January, 2009 performance at Market Square Concerts in Harrisburg.

  The pianistic highlight of the evening was Tantris the Clown. Mr. Bengtson entered into the role of a Pagliaccio as a great actor-pianist. His is a schizophrenic clown, easily shifting mood, color and character from phrase to phrase. His rendering was so compelling, that his clarity of tone and attack and rich Romantic sound could go easily unnoticed.

KAROL SZYMANOWSKI: THEATER IN MUSIC

by Dayle van der Sande

On Sunday, August 19 at 3 o’clock PM, the Philadelphia Chapter of the Kosciuszko Foundation presented a concert of music by the great 20th-century Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), in celebration of both the 125th anniversary of his birth, and the 70th anniversary of his death. The Sejm proclaimed 2007 as the Year of Karol Szymanowski, and many Polish-American organizations have eagerly produced a concert surveying his music. Those in attendance at the Ethical Society Building on Rittenhouse Square this rainy Philadelphia afternoon enjoyed a variety of diversions. A wine reception preceded the event, and one could place bids on beautiful original oil paintings in silent auction. At intermission there was more wine and some of Polonia’s greatest-tasting Polish pastries.

Upon meeting violinist Blanka Bednarz and pianist Matthew Bengtson, the audience was instantly warmed by their ease in presenting the program. Both musicians, having concentrated on Szymanowski for their doctoral degrees, preceded each piece with a concise introduction, erudite and academic, yet infused with personality and charm. This marked their tenth concert together in a five-year collaboration of playing Szymanowski’s music.

The program was an intelligent chronological overview of the composer’s body of work, as so many profile programs tend to be. Here, the placement of selections was masterfully designed to offer variety of style and mood, while alternating focus between violin and piano:

Sonata in D minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 9, first movement

Etudes, Op.4, Nos. 1 and 3

Myths for Violin and Piano, Op.30

– Intermission –

Sheherazade and Tantris the Clown from Masques, Op.34

Chant de Roxane, from the opera King Roger

“Oberek” from Four Polish Dances

Mazurkas, Op.50, Nos.13 and 14

Danse paysanne, from the ballet Harnasie

The sonata was one of Szymanowski’s and the great violinist Pawel Kochanski’s favorite pieces to perform together. The
day’s artists established up front their fine musicianship and technical prowess, and demonstrated skilled ensemble playing, with a
symbiotic understanding of mood upon entering a phrase together.

Myths for Violin and Piano was presented in its entirety. Here we are introduced to Szymanowski’s programmatic music, inspired
by his trips to more exotic lands such as Greece and North Africa. Of particular note was the third movement, Dryades et Pan, a masterful work of musical narrative. At once you see Pan dancing across the keyboard in runs. Those of Mr. Bengtson were tight and clean, like talking staccati. Ms. Bednarz’s control was remarkable in the trills and harmonic passages, which imitate Pan’s flute. She played with great facility, perfectly in pitch, such that one would swear the violin turned into a wind instrument in her hands.

The pianistic highlight of the evening was Tantris the Clown. Mr. Bengtson entered into the role of a Pagliaccio as a great actor-pianist. His is a schizophrenic clown, easily shifting mood, color and character from phrase to phrase. His rendering was so compelling, that his clarity of tone and attack and rich Romantic sound could go easily unnoticed. Mr. Bengtson demonstrated courageous playing, as if he were conducting each key on the keyboard as a distinct instrument. The programming of only two movements of this opus was a tease. One hopes there will be a recording of the full cycle.

Transporting us further into operatic stories, we hear Chant de Roxane, from King Roger, transcribed for violin and piano by Kochanski. Ms. Bednarz opens Roxane’s pleading solo soprano line with imploring sweetness. Yet through a solid tone, she establishes the heroine as a strong woman mustering all her might to appear before the king. When the piano enters, the duo’s brilliant choice of tempo betrays Roxane’s uneasiness, building in urgency as she submits her plea. Yet, her strength lies in tenderness, finishing in a peaceful cadence. The ensemble performed as one mind, staying in their scene from beginning to end. Here we experience the most moving playing of the concert. Both instruments, with vital tongues, never sacrifice storytelling for “beauty for beauty’s sake.” The players rightfully received a prolonged ovation.

In the next set, Mr. Bengtson was at home with the mazurka rhythm as if he were himself a Mazur. In the fast sections, one can imagine from his crisp tempi and rhythmic precision the high kicking boots, the flowing ribbons of the women’s flowery headdresses and the feathered caps of the men swirling around in flashes of color, vivacious and frantic, as the composer’s marking calls for. In Opus 50, No.14, one could hear a competition being struck up among the village men. Each character tries to outdo the other with their signature steps: the heavyweight, the gallant horseman, the lover all stomp and twirl, putting on a show to win over the girls. In the end, everyone is a winner — especially Mr. Bengtson for demonstrating such far-reaching imagination in bringing the mazurkas to life. His doctoral research and first studio recording was devoted to all 22 of Szymanowski’s mazurkas.

At this point, the audience was speaking and breathing Szymanowski. Exhilarated, one began to grasp what expertise and endurance is required to execute a program of this magnitude, and what a legacy of genius this composer gave of his soul to the world. We had been escorted through a unique musical journey by two gifted musicians. Then, in a musical exclamation point, the program concluded with a built-in finale, Danse paysanne, from the ballet Harnasie, also transcribed for violin and piano by Kochanski. There is little one can say to convey this stunning piece suitably on paper. It is not a piece of music; it is an experience. It is a portal that takes you to a mountain village in Zakopane where white-haired, light-blue-eyed men wear ecru woolen costumes with wide-brimmed hats and a band of shells; where they yell out throaty, high-pitched songs from one peak
to another; where they fiddle out improvised tunes in odd modalities. The piece opens with a plaintive, other-worldly melody like an incantation awakening the Goral spirit. Then the violin flies through pizzicati and successive double-stop octaves and many other exploitative tricks that might make Paganini or Wieniawski break a sweat. The piano pounds out syncopated chord progressions and counterpoint staccati, and together they spin out a whirlwind of gutsy dance rhythms and folk melodies, which spiral faster and faster ending in a quick flourish. I was personally moved by this piece more deeply than any other in the lineup. The playing was magnificently accomplished, and exhibited a fundamental comprehension of the ethnicity in the music. But what fulfilled this piece more than any other element was the raw honesty in the playing of both violin and piano.

A more ambitious and fitting tribute could not have been imagined to commemorate the legacy of our hero, Karol Szymanowski and
the heritage of Polish music.

Dayle Van der Sande

   Bengtson is not only a wildly gifted concert pianist acclaimed for his performances of Scriabin and Szymanowski, but also a specialist in early music who concertizes on the harpsichord and various fortepianos (early pianos). … Bengtson brought his own Dutch reproduction of a 1785 Viennese fortepiano (similar to those used by Mozart), with a knee pedal and leather hammers. … I have to say I was entranced by the sound of this instrument – it sounds like a far-away, ghostly piano with a very sweet tone – and by the way Bengtson played it. … Bengtson performed Sonata no. 3 (“Philadelphia”) in C major by Alexander Reinagle, a Philadelphia-area composer of the late 18th century, with amazing control of the technical difficulties of the piece and the instrument.
(Susan L. Pena, Reading Times, May 13, 2007)

    …Bengtson’s incisive, technically impressive readings certainly exhibited the same qualities heard in the best vocalists: exquisite phrasing and a singing tone. … Bengtson is both analytical and creative, a winning combination for any pianist; the two sides of his brain seem to be perfectly balanced. … Bengtson demonstrated his analytical side in two excruciatingly difficult Etudes by the living Transylvanian composer Gyorgy Ligeti: the first, “Desordre” had rhythmic challenges inspired by chaos theory and fractals, and the second, “Automne a Varsovie (Warsaw)” was played in three different tempos at once — a seemingly impossible feat pulled off with elan. … Bengtson is amazing.
(Susan L. Pena, Reading Times, May 14, 2006)

    …the program’s musical high point was pianist Matthew Bengtson’s performance of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 in G. it was in very good hands Saturday evening.
…Matthew Bengtson is a musician’s pianist – the sort of performer who eschews theatrical showmanship in favor of giving his full attention to communicating a composer’s musical thought.
…It may be that Mr. Bengtson’s serious study of the harpsichord contributed to the expressive beauty of his piano performance, where extraordinarily lovely phrasing and crisp articulation, never marred by overly heavy use of the sustaining pedal, provided a classical clarity that brought light to the music. If one part of the performance were to be singled out as special, it might be the second movement’s dialogue between piano and orchestra. A critic commenting on Beethoven’s playing at the work’s first performance remarked that Beethoven ‘sang the lovely second movement on his instrument with a profound sweetness that quite moved [him].’ Had the same critic been present Saturday evening, Mr. Bengtson’s reading might have equally moved him. It was a beautiful performance by both soloist and orchestra.
(.. Courtenay Cauble, The Ridgefield Press, February 13, 2003)

    …Bengtson displayed remarkable poise, on top of a suave and craftsmanlike artistry.
…played with clarity, sweetness and a light touch that suggested a fortepiano of Beethoven’s time rather than the modern Steinway grand that was actually under his fingers.
…a fine ensemble player, he also has a wonderful sense of rhythm and phrasing, fitting the piano part into the texture of the orchestra rather than dominating the piece.
(Susan L. Pena, Reading Times, April 8, 2002)

    …The music’s challenges, suited to the most seasoned performers, were managed with a fine mixture of mature capability and youthful promise.
…He took in stride all of the music’s enormous technical demands and rapidly shifting stylistic changes. Rhythms were crisp, harmonies well defined, lines of counterpoint carefully balanced and distinguished.
(Joseph McLellan, Washington Post, April 23, 2001, on Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli Variations’)

    …He made the most of the score, giving it a true Romantic reading.
…He achieved a gossamer, veiled sound like curtains blowing.
(Susan L. Pena, Reading Times, February 1999 on Schumann’s ‘Davidsbundler’)

    …In both performances, he proved himself an artist of formidable intelligence, confidence and charm.
…Never one to take the easy way out ..
…Bengtson’s direct style – very natural, with no mannerisms – worked well for him in this piece, which he gave a noble and powerful reading throughout.
…he gave the long, spacious phrases all the breadth they needed.
…Technically flawless and amazingly mature.
(Susan L. Pena, Reading Times, February 12, 1996, on Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor)

    …quicksilver fingers .. incisive, thoughtful interpretations. …he played a series of short pieces by Alexander Scriabin .. a composer for whom he has a clear affinity .. He played with great delicacy, a beautiful singing tone when called for, and a formidable left hand. He absolutely reveled in these pieces, and his delight translated into readings that communicated fully with the audience.
(Susan L. Pena, Reading Times, April 10, 1995)