The lockdowns, imposed by our governments in response to the coronavirus pandemic, had little, if anything, to recommend them, but for me one of the more positive aspects of the long monotonous months of the UK lockdowns were my regular conversations with my friend Dr Michael Low.
Michael lives in South Africa. I first “met” him online through Graham Fitch, with whom Michael studied, and who taught me when I was preparing for my FTCL diploma. Some years ago, when Michael was visiting his family in the UK, we met for lunch in London’s Chinatown and we talked, and talked, and talked…..about the piano, pianists, repertoire, and more.
During the lockdowns, my regular conversations with Michael were an opportunity to talk not just about the piano, pianists and music in general but also about politics and our respective government’s response to the pandemic. It was both refreshing and comforting to know there was a kindred spirit on another continent.
Many of us found our creativity severely impaired by the lockdowns – at first the opportunity for endless practising, or writing, or other creative pursuits felt like a treat for those of us who lead busy lives, but it quickly sapped creative impulses. Not so, Michael, whose Lockdown Liszt Project was recorded in the summer of 2021.
Michael recorded two works by Franz Liszt, the Vallée d’Obermann from the Swiss book of Années de pèlerinage, and the Ballade No. 2. I first heard Michael’s Obermann when I was reading Paul Roberts’ new book ‘Reading Franz Liszt’ and my head was full of the literary and poetic inspirations behind this and many other of Liszt’s works. What Michael captures so wonderfully in this performance is not only the poetry and drama of Liszt’s writing but also the evocation of the monumental, awe-inspiring landscape of the Alps, which Liszt himself would have experienced during his travels in Europe.
There’s a wonderful spaciousness in Michael’s performance and he really savours the drama of silence as well as that of sound – of which there is great variety in the colours and timbres he offers. The portentous opening theme, restated throughout the piece, is contrasted with moments of great lyricism and introspection, perfectly capturing the dilemma of the character of Obermann as well as the physical drama of the Alpine landscape.
The Ballade No. 2 is similarly picturesque, and like the Ballades of Chopin charts a fantasia-like narrative (pianist Claudio Arrau maintained that the piece portrays the Greek myth of Hero and Leander) through 15 minutes of operatic grandeur, rapidly shifting moods and contrasting soundscapes. Here, as in Obermann, Liszt confronts the listener with wide-ranging, often extreme emotions – from menacing, stormy rumblings in the bass to a serene hymn-like melody and clusters of chords high in the treble. There’s beauty in the darkness of this Ballade and Michael really appreciates this, relishing the contrasts in note-saturated, complex textures without any loss of clarity or expression. It’s an absorbing performance and the quality of the recording has an immediacy which really suits this music.
Watch both performances on Michael Low’s YouTube channel
Dr Michael Low will be in conversation with Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, in a new podcast series, Piano 101, launching soon
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