DARRET ZUSKO, pianist, at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, January 15, 2008, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

Darrett Zusko is the first young Canadian Artist to appear in Music Toronto’s DISCOVERY series. Mr. Zusko has won prizes in six major piano competitions during the last few years and has just completed his first recording — the works of the late Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz.

The two Schubert pieces he played on Music Toronto’s new Steinway seemed to sound harsh, mechanical, and without poetry. Our disappointment was explained at intermission when we heard the piano-tuner working on the ailing instrument. Fortunately the second half of the concert was a full program of adventurous music that Mr. Zusko played brilliantly, justifying this repeat of some words of praise by his teacher at Julliard: “Darrett is probably the most technically-gifted pianist I have taught in 30 years….”

The three sections of Fantasy, Elegy, and Toccata (1956) by the late Oskar Morawetz are quite different in mood. But all are marked by a flowing, rhythmic vitality, a lyricism that spans the keyboard, and tricky, shifting time changes. Zusko’s account was well-crafted, sensitive to the poetics of feeling that ranged from quirky to elegant, melancholy to sardonic, eerie to thunderous. He presented the piece as a unified, continuous flow of lines assembled in the form of a mosaic. Very interesting.

Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9, Op. 68 is a single movement work written on the eve of WW1, and championed by Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Zusko’s performance was electrifying. The piece is marked by dissonance, and a sense of instability that Mr. Zusko lets wail and cascade into mounting complexity and tension, pegging it to the ground like a tent in a gale by the five-note motif that is repeated intermittently throughout. Mr. Zusko’s reveals the astonishing quickness of his mind as he navigates three staves of music, and his left hand work is exciting.

The program ended with a seriously hot rendition of Bela Bartok’s 1926 Suite Out of Doors, a contrasted sequence of five character pieces. All five make percussive use of discordant intervals which are marvelous, but Mr. Zusko manages to get some wonderfully weird chiming overtones going that I don’t recall ever hearing. His work in the lowest register of the piano is powerful but contained, and his icy top notes sparkle. The fourth section, entitled “Night Music” came convincingly alive with creatures that dart and flit, and he drove the finale “Chase” with ferocious insistence, propelling with his left hand the insistent five-note groups around the melodic elements.

During the beautiful but unnamed Chopin encore, it occurred to me that Mr. Zusko’s technical brilliance is in the service of a mind that makes manifest the form and the inner logic of the music he plays.  This is a talent that should serve him well at the first stage of the Honens International Piano Competition in New York where he will be competing in March.

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