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.
Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture