I first heard Igor Levit in this sonata triptych back in 2013. It seemed a bold programme choice for a young man, yet Levit’s assertion that this music was “written to be played” makes perfect sense and is a view I’m sure Beethoven would concur with. Then I felt there was room for development and maturity, important attributes for any young artist in the spring of their professional career. Now I hear an artist who has lived with – and in – the music and has crystallised his own view about it.
He crouches over the piano like an animal coiled for attack, yet the sound in those opening bars of the Sonata in E major, Op.109, was so delicate, so lyrically ethereal, it felt as if the music was emerging from some mystical outer firmament, entirely appropriate for these sonatas which find Beethoven in profoundly philosophical mood. It is music which speaks of shared values and what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being; it “puts us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe” (Paul Lewis). The Prestissimo second movement, urgent and anxious in its tempo and atmosphere emphasised by some ominous bass figures, contained Levit’s trademark “shock and awe” stamping fortes and fortissimos, only to find him and the music back in meditative mood for the theme and variations, which reprised the serenity of the opening, the theme spare and prayer-like with more of that wonderfully delicate shading at the quietest end of the dynamic spectrum that he does so well.
Guest review by Patrick, a musicologist residing in the Midwest
Daniil Trifonov was annoyed. He walked out on stage with a pained expression, the cheery look of his youth victim of the trials, presumably, of a professional career. After two cursorily rude bows to the audience (which wrapped around the stage entirely), he jumped straight onto the bench, staring – grimacing – at the keys. Kinderszenen contained all of his trademark complexity of line and texture brought about by Trifonov’s utterly unique use of microdislocations – employed continuously throughout the whole set. This technique is the heart of his genius, allowing him to achieve extreme contrasts in texture, voicing, and phrasing of line. Can you think of any other pianist that developed the dislocation to such a degree? While it may seem like a product of his Russian education, is there another Russian pianist today that pursues the same innovation in performance technique? I doubt Trifonov learned in America either – I was certainly never allowed by my teacher to engage in such excesses. Neither can it be said that he is reviving some past performance practice – older Soviet pianists certainly employed dislocation to add emphasis to moments of arrival, but not in the pervasive manner employed here. Furthermore, the traditional type of dislocation – pressing the bass notes before the treble to create a sense of arrival – is decidedly not what one typically hears at a Trifonov concert. He must be taking a lesson from chamber music and vocal accompanying practice. After all, it is somewhat common among good accompanists to delay the bass arrivals until after the attack of the vocal notes fades into resonance. And this type of dislocation, with the bass (and also middle voices) delayed until after the treble, is what makes Trifonov’s artistry so special.
Back to the program: Kinderszenen was a feast to the ears of line and color. Dramatic passages were dispatched with great energy and aplomb. It must be said, however, that Trifonov’s typical lyricism seemed to be dulled this evening – perhaps a result of whatever annoyance was bothering him. The slower passages did not quite have that feeling of magical cessation of time, often miraculously whipped up by the pianist through an ingenious combination of tempo manipulation and textural contrasts. While these techniques were still very much present, there was the deadly feeling of impatience imposed over them. Notwithstanding, I cannot register a complaint, as what may have been lacking in the slower passages were more than made up for by the fire and drama brought to the climactic passages, especially as the recital progressed. The next piece, Schumann’s Toccata, testifies to Trifonov’s brilliance in program construction – after the lapidary miniatures of Kinderszenen, the audience was ready to be whipped into a frenzy, and the ploy worked – numerous people gave a standing ovation to the second piece on the program. The sound world of the Toccata (and of the Schumann in general) is very interesting. It seems to me that Trifonov has entered into a new phase of his career where he is exploring the mid-range of the piano. The Toccata was a great illustration of this, as the soprano and bass voices were hardly ever brought out in favor of a gritty voicing of the middle voice chords filling out the texture (another thing I would never have been allowed to do). This technique robs the Toccata of its flair as a dramatic showpiece with a thundering bass, but gives it a new lease on life by revealing its wacky side (I cannot help but now see a connection to Stravinsky’s Petrushka, occupying the place of finale in the other half of the program). As for the Kreisleriana, the masterwork of the first half, I can firmly declare that Trifonov is peerless in this work. No one other recording or performance that I have ever heard contains even half of his kaleidoscopic conception and range of texture, timbre, and tempo: my companion at the concert (a violinist herself) said that at several points she forgot that she was listening to the piano (an instrument she never took to that much) and instead thought there was a chamber ensemble on stage! Can you think of higher praise for a pianist than that?
After a massive standing ovation for the first half and the pause, Trifonov sprints back out the bench and dives into his selections from Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues. These selections were not chosen in their original order, but arranged for maximum effect – the creepily gorgeous opening prelude leads us through a luscious set of figural fragrances and fabrics before ending with a fugue containing a stormy finish. After this piece, the audience not only stood up to clap, but starting to yell bravos as well – something I have never heard before in the middle of a program – obscuring even the start of the Stravinsky! Even more so than the Schumann works, Shostakovich provided a canvas for Trifonov’s deeply original creativity – the range of sounds coming from the piano was tremendous, but equally matched by a phenomenal sense of dramatic pacing and climactic energy. The metaphor of Trifonov as a chamber ensemble with independent-minded players never seemed more apt. The final work on the program – Stravinsky’s Petrushka and the highlight of the concert – must be heard to be believed. No longer can Petrushka be considered an empty virtuoso vehicle, indeed so much life was added to it that many parts simply did not resemble what we are used to hearing. On top of all the qualities emphasized above (including some marvelously voiced chords and textures), it was Trifonov’s undeniable genius at rhythmic shaping that brought the piece to life. In short, the rhythms were so powerful, the syncopations so strong, the polyrhythms so present, that one could hardly avoid falling out of your seat – indeed Trifonov seemed perilously close falling off the bench has he was what could only be called dancing on the bench. And the music was dancing too, in every nook and cranny of the piece Stravinsky’s vision of the Russian countryside came to life. For the first time, that old wild smile began to appear on Trifonov’s face.
After tremendous applause that began before the piece even finished, the audience was treated to two encores (desperate attempts to garner a third through yelling at the pianist proved unsuccessful). The first was Nikolay Medtner’s Op. 38/8 “Alla Reminiscenza” played at a breakneck speed, building up to a tremendous flourish. Let it be known that I would graciously donate an arm and a leg to hear Trifonov perform the whole set. The second encore was a delightful piece by Prokofiev bringing the nearly 3-hour concert to a close. The concert showed once again that Trifonov is the premier recitalist of the age – it was only marred by a phone endlessly ringing during the Kreisleriana, which, after being supposedly shut off, went on to ring again exactly 30 seconds later.
Concert date: 26 March 2017, CSO Chicago
Schumann – Kinderszenen
Schumann – Toccata, Op. 7
Schumann – Kreisleriana
Shostakovich – Selections from 24 Preludes and Fugues
Stravinsky – Three Movements from Petrushka
Medtner – Alla Reminiscenza from Forgotten Melodies [ENCORE]
Igor Levit is, along with Daniil Trifonov, the pianist du jour. Lauded for his disc of the Goldberg Variations and Diabelli Variations and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, and with a slew of critical superlatives for his debut disc of late Beethoven piano sonatas, Levit is a pianist who concerns himself with the most serious edifices of piano literature, while Trifonov tends towards the more romantic virtuoso repertoire.
Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas represent the loftiest Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, both in terms of the arc of their composition (three distinct periods which mirror significant stages in the composer’s life, artistically and emotionally), and the demands these works place on the pianist. The complete Beethoven cycle, a performance of all the piano sonatas, usually over eight concerts, is a Herculean task, not to be undertaken lightly. It fully tests the mettle of any performer, but the perennial appeal of presenting these works in a cycle is a mark of their significance and the special reverence they have accrued.
On Wednesday night, Igor Levit embarked on his Beethoven sonatas cycle at the Wigmore Hall, bringing his intelligent and distinctive approach to these great works.
A mile or so along the river from where I live in Teddington, SW London, the attractive 18th-century church of St Mary’s in Twickenham sits on a grassy plinth overlooking the Thames. And for the weekend of 10-12 June 2016, it became the home of a new chamber music festival, directed by Emily Pailthorpe of the London Conchord Ensemble.
Regional and local classical music festivals are such a good idea. They take music out of formal metropolitan concert venues and into communities, forging important and lasting connections between musicians, local people and venues, and many attract world class performers, as well as encouraging young musicians. Conchord Festival boasted an impressive roster of performers, including actor Simon Callow and baritone Roderick Williams. I was delighted to attend the Saturday afternoon concert, music for piano duo performed by Alasdair Beatson and Julian Milford.
The theme of the concert was dance and the connecting thread was Sergei Diaghilev, ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, who collaborated most famously with Igor Stravinsky in the staging of The Rite of Spring, the piano 4-hands version of which concluded the concert. The afternoon opened with Debussy’s Prelude à l’Aprés Midi d’un Faun, a symphonic poem which formed the basis of the ballet Afternoon of a Faun, choreogaphed by Nijinsky and staged by the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1912. The piano duo version was transcribed by Ravel and loses nothing of its sinuous lines and erotic textures in the piano reduction. Beatson and Milford’s performance was languorous, nuanced and sensuous, perfect for a humid summer’s afternoon. This was followed by four of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, a reminder of the popularity of music for piano duo during the nineteenth-century and a foot-tapping musical palette-cleanser before the main event, The Rite of Spring, which followed the interval.
When The Rite of Spring opened in Paris in May 1913 the avant-garde nature of the music and the staging caused a near-riot in the audience. The piece still has the power to shock over 100 years later, with its narrative of savage rituals and human sacrifice. Stravinsky first performed his own four-handed version of The Rite of Spring with Debussy, the arrangement created to accompany rehearsals for the first performance of the ballet. This music was born on the piano, written in a tiny room, so Stravinsky tells us, on an upright piano, and it contains an exhilarating and precarious excitement. Forget the orchestral version: here is a work of raw energy, convulsive rhythms and pagan exoticism, aptly described by Debussy as “a beautiful nightmare”. It remains a vertiginously challenging work for piano duet, straining the medium to its limits. Beatson and Milford rose to the challenge with aplomb, managing pianistic gymnastics with ease and creating a riot of colour, texture, rhythmic drive and narrative. The famous stamped-out chords were percussive and metallic, redolent of heavy machinery, pistons and steam engines. (Let us not forget this piece received its first performances as Europe was preparing for the most mechanised and destructive war in its history.) This was truly an enthralling journey.
Next year’s Conchord Festival takes place from 9-11 June 2017.
“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”
This quote from Mozart seems particularly apt for Steven Osborne’s concert at Milton Court which featured music by Morton Feldman and George Crumb, two radical American composers with a special interest in exploring the piano’s expressive qualities as much through the spaces between the notes as in the notes themselves. Eschewing melody as the main vehicle for expression in their music, both Feldman and Crumb offer the listener a special soundworld infused with simplicity and stillness. Osborne’s interest in stillness in music combined with his ability to produce magical kaleidoscopic shadings, as evidenced by his very fine performances and recording of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards surl’enfantJèsus, make him the perfect performer for this programme.
(Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Silence in music, any music, is very important. Pauses and silences provide “punctuation marks” and create ebb and flow, just as in speech. Silences also create drama and set up expectations in the minds of the listener, while stillness and quietness in music allow the listener to be drawn in to create a special, sometimes very intense connection with the performer. In the pre-concert talk, Osborne talked of how, as a child, he liked to experiment at the piano to see how quietly he could play, fascinated by the tactile experience of producing very soft sounds. He described how the simplicity and stillness of Feldman’s music in particular – music which is sometimes merely a handful of notes or a few carefully chosen chords with no clear narrative nor organic development – allows the listener to engage with the music “in the moment”, with a mindfulness akin to meditation without the need to conceptualise nor admire it as an “art-object”.
Hearing J S Bach’s St John Passion in a Baroque church, as I did on Good Friday, connected this powerful and stirring work more closely to its original conception and performance. This was the annual Good Friday performance at St John’s Smith Square, a Baroque church in the heart of Westminster, given by Polyphony with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Stephen Layton.
Bach composed his Johannes Passion (St John Passion) in 1724, the composer’s first year as director of church music in Leipzig. The work received its first performance on 7 April 1724, at Good Friday Vespers, at the St Nicholas Church. The work is in two sections, intended to flank a sermon, and the text, which retells the events of Good Friday leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, death and deposition from the Cross, is drawn from chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John in the Luther Bible. To the modern audience, the text may seem arcane, and the unfolding narrative feels almost operatic, but to the congregation in Bach’s church, it would have been entirely familiar, as were the chorales which used well-known hymn tunes and texts. The work comprises choruses, chorales, arias and recitatives, with some highly effective and arresting “word painting” to reflect the meaning of certain words or passages.
In this performance, the role of St John the Evangelist was sung by Stuart Jackson whose tenor voice was eloquent, pure and mellifluous. Jackson was joined by Neal Davies, a sombre Christus, whose interplay with Roderick Williams’ Pilate was gripping and intense. Julia Doyle, Iestyn Davies, and Gwilym Bowen all responded with sensitivity to the spiritual substance of the text and the profound drama of the narrative. Julia Doyle’s soprano arias were especially luminous, while Iestyn Davies’ counter-tenor was clear and ethereal.
Polyphony sang with a full, rounded sound with impressively crisp diction which brought a dramatic immediacy to the text, for example in the chorus when Christ is brought before Pilate and the choir become the baying crowd. Stephen Layton drew a rich, colourful sound from the OAE with some particularly fine contributions from the woodwind and an elegant cello continuo. The pacing of the drama was also expertly judged by Layton with impactful and moving pauses and longer silences to allow the audience time to digest and reflect upon the highly charged and emotional narrative.
The transfer of the International Piano Series to St John’s Smith Square while the Southbank Centre undergoes a facelift is proving successful and popular. An elegant venue with a fine acoustic and a beautiful Steinway piano, coupled with one of the UK’s most gifted pianists active today, made for an evening of music making of the highest calibre, in a diverse programme which opened with Schubert and closed with Rachmaninov.
Schubert’s second set of Impromptus D935 are less frequently performed than the first set, with the exception of the third of the set (a set of variations based on the Rosamunde theme). The first and the last, both in F minor but very contrasting, were presented in this concert. The word “Impromptu” is misleading, suggesting a small-scale extemporaneous salon piece or album leaf. Schubert’s Impromptus, composed in 1827, his post-Winterreise year of fervent creativity, are tightly-structured and highly cohesive works.
There is nothing “small scale” about the opening of the first of the D935, and Steven Osborne‘s account of this was brisk, almost terse, and bold, with a grandeur redolent of Beethoven at his most expansively gestural. But Schubert does not linger in this territory for long and soon the music moved into a far more introverted realm. The middle section, tender duetting fragments over an undulating accompaniment, was poetic, intimate and ethereal. By contrast, the other F minor Impromptu was infused with Hungarian flavours, with offbeat rhythms and twisting scalic figures. Osborne pulled it off with a modest bravado, alert always to Schubert’s miraculous harmonic shifts and fleeting moods.
The Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić first came to my attention, perhaps for the wrong reasons, when I read about his 2014 fracas with The Washington Post over the “right to be forgotten” in Google searches. He asked for a review from 2010, which he felt was unfair, to be removed. The incident sparked a lively debate across the networks about whether artists should respond to negative reviews or make such requests, and whether critics and reviewers need to be more careful about what they say. To me, it was a rather neat example of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”: I read about Lazić, my curiosity was piqued and I wanted to hear him live.
I missed his Queen Elizabeth Hall concert in winter 2014 so I was pleased to see him on the roster of the Wigmore Hall’s lunchtime concerts. And how glad I am that I decided to go to the concert, for he presented an imaginative programme of music: two greats of German music – Haydn and Schumann – were juxtaposed with dances by Shostakovich and Lazić himself, all of which revealed his strengths.
Anyone who makes me smile in Haydn gets my applause……
My concert-going year got off to a wonderful start with a solo performance by Pavel Kolesnikov, a sensitive young pianist who showcased Debussy’s evergreen and ever-popular Préludes Book 1, with L’isle joyeuse to round off a most satisfying and engaging lunchtime recital at London’s Wigmore Hall
Debussy’s Préludes are amongst his most popular repertoire for the piano, Book 1 being the most well-known. When Debussy first published these works, he headed them with a number only, their titles being hidden at the foot of each piece. The intention clearly was that their stories, pictures and moods were revealed gradually to pianist and listener. In Kolesnikov’s performance, there was a similar sense of the music unfolding before us, with new voices and inner lines of melody revealed gradually or unexpectedly.
In the last week, I’ve been to two concerts which have featured the music of Fryderyk Chopin. The first, at St John’s Smith Square, was the second concert in British pianist Warren Mailley-Smith‘s wonderful and ambitious complete Chopin cycle; the second was a concert by young Polish Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, who performed the Opus 25 Études as part of his Wigmore Hall recital on 30th October.
Warren opened his concert with Chopin’s Fantasie in F minor, Op 49, a dark yet majestic work to which he brought requisite scale and grandeur while also highlighting the more intimate elements of the piece. The rest of the programme featured shorter works: a selection of Waltzes and Mazurkas, and in the second half the complete Op 10 Études. What was apparent throughout the concert is that Warren clearly adores this music. This may sound crass, but I believe it is important to love the music you play. In the many interviews I have conducted with musicians, most will express a real love of the repertoire they play and this is often a deciding factor when planning concert programmes or recordings. Warren’s affection for the music was apparent in every note and phrase and this was transmitted very clearly to the audience both through his sensitive shaping of the music, his elegant soundworld and his body language. Despite the size of the venue, he created an atmosphere of intimacy, amply demonstrating his appreciation for the small scale of many of the works played.
In his Études, Chopin elevates the student study into a work of great beauty and virtuosity – while also cleverly retaining the basic premise of the study, that it tests and hones one’s technique. I think the key to playing the Études convincingly is to treat them first and foremost as beautiful pieces of music. Which is what Warren did. It is fascinating to hear the complete set in one sitting, to appreciate their contrasting characteristics and moods, and to marvel at the range of Chopin’s imagination and powers of expression. In Warren’s hands, each was a miniature miracle, sensitively rendered and deftly delivered. His assured technique was the foundation on which he built this artistry and the overall result was exceptionally engaging and intense. I look forward to the next concert in Warren’s Chopin cycle, at the end of November.
Midweek, I heard Stephen Hough at the Barbican in music by Schubert, Franck and Liszt together with the premiere of his new Piano Sonata III, ‘Trinitas’. There is no doubting Hough’s formidable technique coupled with insightful musicality and this concert reflected this. It was a serious affair, only lightened at the end by the encores, but it was a satisfying and thoughtful concert.
Finally on Friday to the Wigmore to hear Jan Lisiecki, billed as a “wunderkind” (a description that always makes me suspicious!). At just 20, Lisiecki has already garnered much praise, in particular for his recording of Chopin’s Op 10 and Op 25 Etudes (he has been signed to Deutsche Grammophon since the age of 15). I have read much about Lisiecki, some very fulsome, some not, and I was curious to hear him live. Unfortunately, his concert was a very patchy affair. The opening Mozart Sonata (K 331) was elegantly articulated, tastefully pedalled and with an understanding of Mozart’s orchestral writing, particularly in the middle movement. The Rondo all Turca, which certain pianists, who shall remain nameless, have a habit of thumping out at high speed, was witty and playful, undoubtedly helped by a more restrained dynamic.
Things started to go wrong, for me at least, with three Concert Studies by Liszt, with further problems in Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses, which were largely lost in unclear phrasing and overly loud playing. After the interval came Chopin’s Opus 25 Études. The ‘Aeolian Harp’ Etude began well, with delicate figurations and a clear sense of the melodic line, but as soon as the volume began to increase, Lisiecki’s touch became heavy handed and unrefined. In the more energetic Etudes, we were “treated” to an unrestrained display from the “louder faster” school of pianism. The ‘Butterfly Etude’ bounced around the keyboard like an over-sized clumsy moth. Phrasing went awry in the noisy melée, left-hand figures were highlighted but made no sense, and by the time we reached the ‘Winter Wind’ Etude, the brutal hammering of the piano had become almost laughable. In short, this was an unnecessarily flashy and tasteless display of arrogant adolescent virtuosity, which seemed to bear little fidelity to the score, nor an understanding of Chopin’s distinctive soundworld (it is said by those who heard him play that even in the forte and fortissimo range, his sound never rose above mezzo-forte: this is of course in part due to the more softly-spoken instrument he favoured). I have a fundamental and ongoing problem with people playing Chopin’s miniatures (and the Etudes are miniatures – just very difficult ones!) on modern concert grands: just because you can harness an enormous sound from such an instrument, it does not mean you should. A sensitive artist will know how to temper the sound to suit the repertoire – and the acoustic. The Wigmore is a relatively small venue and the audience does not need to be hit over the head with the sound of the piano….. I wondered, on hearing Lisiecki’s playing, whether a teacher may have encouraged him to play that way, or whether it was simply the exuberance of youth. I also felt he is still looking for repertoire which truly suits his personality: when he does, I hope he may produce good things.
Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture