Pianist Angelo Villani is not exactly a household name. Over 20 years ago, he was due to participate in the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition when a trapped nerve in his right arm, the result of a sports injury, forced him to withdraw. The loss of sensation in his hand caused by the injury prevented him from performing, except only sporadically, while he sought a cure for his condition. In 2010, he started performing again in private recitals in London, and on 6th October 2010 he made his much-anticipated London debut at St James’s Piccadilly, in a programme of works by Brahms, Greig and Liszt, including the vertiginous ‘Après une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata’ from the Années de Pèlerinage II (Italie).
I was fortunate enough to hear Angelo perform ahead of his London debut at St James’s Piccadilly, at an ‘at home’ concert hosted by Jessica Duchen. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a big fan of music in small places, and concerts in people’s homes are the perfect way to enjoy music which was, by and large, intended for the intimacy of the salon. And for a performer, playing before a small, sympathetic and highly engaged audience is very useful preparation for a more formal concert.
Angelo played a selection of pieces from his St James’s programme. He opened with Brahms’s ‘Edward’ Ballade (Opus 10, no. 1, in g minor, so called because it is based on a ‘murder ballad’ of the same name), a piece whose open fifths and simple harmonies suggest myth and legend. It was played with an imposing and sombre elegance, its melancholy perfectly complemented by the wistful, tranquil Intermezzo in E from the Opus 116 which followed it. The alternate theme, following the rich, hymn-like opening statements, was imbued with poignancy, which led the programme nicely into a handful of Grieg’s lyric pieces. These were played with great character and sensitivity to the ‘narrative’ of each piece: a shimmering butterfly, a moody waltz, the joyful ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’, a yearning ‘Arietta’ and a dancing ‘Remembrances’, the two pieces reflections of one another in their melodic and stylistic elements. The Brahms g minor Rhapsody, which followed these pieces, had an intense, Beethovenian drama, rich and passionate. In complete contrast, the two ‘Petrarch Sonnets’ by Liszt (nos. 47 and 123), from the Italian Années de pèlerinage, were songful, deeply expressive, with some beautifully judged “misty” pedal effects and graceful dynamic shading.
We demanded an encore, and we were rewarded, appropriately, with Schumann’s ‘Des Abends’ from the Fantasiestücke, Op 12. This was piano playing to savour: mature, thoughtful, committed and convincing. Angelo has a real understanding of romantic repertoire, but without selling out to crowd-pleasing piano pyrotechnics or over-sentimentality. Based on his Brahms, in particular, last night, I am sure his performance of Liszt’s ‘Dante’ Sonata will be assured, charismatic and profound.
Angelo played wearing white gloves. This is not a virtuoso affectation, nor some reference to the eccentricities of Glenn Gould; as Angelo explained to me afterwards, the gloves prevent his fingers “dragging” at the keys too much, thus protecting his hands.
For more information about Angelo Villani, please visit www.angelovillani.com. If you enjoy piano music delivered with seriousness, bravery, lyricism and drama, informed by some of the great pianists of earlier eras, go and hear Angelo live.
Jessica Duchen’s blog article about Angelo Villani