What can I write about Stephen Hough’s startling, stunning concert at the Festival Hall last night?
During the second half, between the miniatures by Debussy and Beethoven’s elemental Appassionata Sonata (Op 57), I leaned across to my concert companion and muttered that this concert seemed to be all about spontaneity and improvisation, the short works by Debussy which opened both halves of the concert, in themselves, and in Hough’s skillful hands, improvisatory in character, revealing the same qualities in the works by Schumann and Beethoven. One had the sense of meticulous preparation – and Stephen has talked before in interviews and articles about practising of the need to be “a perfectionist in the practise room” so that one can be “a bohemian” on stage – which enabled him to step back from the music and set it free.
It was an unusual programme. Other pianists may not have been able to pull it off so convincingly, and certainly opening with Debussy’s much-loved Claire de Lune from the Suite Bergamasque was potentially risky. The piece is so well-known, so prone to clichéd readings – yet Hough’s sensitive, unfussy shaping of this work saved it from saccharine sentimentality, and the delicacy of his sound and touch encouraged concentrated listening while also creating a wonderful sense of intimacy in the vastness of the RFH. It was as if we were in Debussy’s drawing room, gathered around his upright piano. And as Stephen said in the pre-concert talk, in the moments of the concert, we can “all be friends”, forgetting our differences of opinion or politics, joined in the shared pleasure of music.
In the programme notes, Stephen Hough explained that his choice of repertoire highlighted the very different approaches the three composers took to writing for the piano. While Debussy’s works (Clair de Lune, the two books of Images and the Prelude La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune) are “sensual paintings with mystical suggestions” [SH] (and even without the titles, their distinctive soundworld immediately conjures up potent, perfumed images in the listener’s mind), the two works by German composers are abstract and tightly structured with clear musical architecture.
And so while Debussy was light (feathery, but never fluffy) and delicately hued, the textures of Schumann’s Fantasie in C seemed all the richer in comparison, the composer’s passion for Clara all there in every note and phrase (Schumann often wears his heart on his sleeve), balanced by lyricism and tenderness, particularly in the glorious closing movement which seemed to evolve and expand there and then.
Similarly, the Beethoven felt wrought before our very eyes and ears, the opening measures creeping out of the mysterious darkness of the lower registers into something resembling light, if only briefly, the work fantasy-like in its range of ideas and striking contrasts. The outer movements were fraught with emotion, urgent and agitated, the middle movement providing a calm respite before the finale was unleashed upon us with, its feverish intensity all the more terrifying for the restrained tempo: this was music on the edge of chaos.
Stephen returned to Schumann for the first encore, one of the Symphonic Etudes which was rejected by the composer – a brief few moments of meltingly beautiful filigree traceries. And a Chopin nocturne to close this exceptional evening.
Richard Goode plays Schubert’s last three piano sonatas at Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 25th May 2016
“….the most delicate nuance, significance everywhere, the keenest expression of the particular, and finally the whole suffused with a romanticism…..And the heavenly length…..”
This quote from Schumann actually refers to Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony, but the phrase “heavenly length” is often used in relation to Schubert’s late piano sonatas. The final triptych, drafted in the spring of 1828 and completed a few months before Schubert’s death in the autumn of the same year (extant manuscripts suggest a preliminary sketch and then a full final version), are big works, each with four movements, meticulously structured with cyclic motifs running through each individual sonata and the set as a whole, revealing Schubert’s innate sense of musical geometry and bold treatment of the traditional sonata form. These are works in which one sees the entire arc of the work mapped at the very beginning, neatly concluded at the close of the finale, and it takes a particular performer to tackle both this musical architecture and the sonatas’ length.
Some pianists, and scholars, feel these sonatas can be legitimately “shortened” by omitting the exposition repeat in the first movement. In the C minor (D958) and A major (D959) sonatas, this repeat adds only c5 minutes to the length, while in the final sonata in B flat (D960) observing the repeat creates a first movement of c20 minutes, which is as long as an entire early to mid-period Beethoven sonata. Personally, I always feel somewhat cheated myself, and on behalf of the composer, if the exposition repeat is omitted in performance or on a recording. But I suspect some pianists omit the repeats because they feel the audience cannot cope with such a long programme, or perhaps because the performer wants to be out of the hall and heading home before the pubs close. This misjudges audiences’ expectations, in my opinion. Those of us who choose to hear Schubert’s last three piano sonatas in concert are prepared for a long evening – that is the great pleasure of this music when played well.
I have enjoyed Richard Goode’s recordings of Schubert’s piano sonatas and his recording of the penultimate sonata, D959, remains my benchmark. Thus I went to his concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall (part of the International Piano Series) with a great deal of excitement and anticipation, helped in no small part by the fact that I met a pianist friend there who like me is very fond of Schubert’s piano music.
Occasionally, very occasionally, I go to a concert where from the opening notes I can tell it will be a perfect evening. This year there have already been a few (Pavel Kolesnikov playing Debussy Preludes at Wigmore Hall, Steven Osborne at St John’s Smith Square, Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards’ at Milton Court); these really are the “wow” moments of my concert-going life, performances so outstanding, exhilarating, spell-binding, magical and above all memorable, that to write a review of the event afterwards has felt like a heavy task because I could never put into words exactly why the concert was so wonderful. I deliberately chose not to review Richard Goode’s concert for Bachtrack.com (and yet here I am writing about it now) because I wanted to immerse myself in the sound, to listen to every note, every idea, every nuance, every shading and colour. I didn’t want to have to get up the next morning, with the memory of the music still resonating in my mind and imagination, and “explain” the concert in a review.
I’m not going to describe each sonata in detail – there will be other reviews no doubt for that. In fact, what follows is a series of responses to what I heard, notes I made in the programme during the concert, and thoughts shared between myself and my concert companion.
Richard Goode observed all the exposition repeats, yet at no point did the sonatas feel long. Some pianists feel a need to muck around with the pulse and rhythm in Schubert in an attempt to highlight aspects such as the rapid emotional voltes faces or extraordinary harmonic shifts which colour Schubert’s music. In fact, by maintaining a clear sense of pulse and rhythmic vitality the longer first and final movements moved forward apace, yet never hurrying nor pushing the tempi, and the works actually felt short, even with all exposition repeats intact. In all three sonatas, the finales were vibrant and colourful – in the D958 the tarantella became a witty dance, in the D959 and D960 one felt Schubert’s urge to say more, so much more, that the ideas were still tumbling from his mind and pen.
Goode can do Beethovenian robustness and muscularity when required (the C minor Sonata contains a number of obvious “hommages” to Beethoven, while the references are more subtle in the D959 and D960), but he has a keen sense of the ethereal qualities of Schubert’s writing too. Thus his fortes and fortissimos were rich and orchestral, never strident, while the softest end of the dynamic range was delicate yet still focused. At times the sound shone or glowed from within, thanks to Goode’s superlative clarity of tone, touch and articulation. Schubert’s magical and daring harmonic shifts were highlighted, Goode lingering over them briefly before moving on to the next one, so that they became fleeting and elusive rather than obvious.
Simple but never simplistic
There’s an awful lot of baggage, theorising and debate surrounding Schubert’s late music, in particular the extraordinary Andantino of the D959, a slow movement quite unlike anything else Schubert wrote. That Schubert was dying of syphilis and the debilitating side-effects of the cure is known and documented; likewise that he was living in a city ravaged by war and social upheaval. Whether these sonatas are his response to his illness or his social situation, or are his “last words”, a farewell, a valediction, is open to debate, but I get frustrated by pianists who try to read too much into the music and allow their interpretations to be overly psychological, clouded by the psychobabble. Goode’s approach to this music is straightforward – he gives us what is on the page but what we hear is enriched by his long association with this music and his evident understanding of it.
Some pianists take the Andantino at Adagio and turn it into a funeral dirge. Goode opted for a lilting tempo to highlight the simple melancholic folksong qualities of the opening melody. The middle section opened like a Bachian fantasy, increasingly interrupted by the frenetic trills and triplets before the full savagery was unleashed. In the slow movement of the D960, the tempo was restrained, but it never dragged. The result was a movement of extreme concentration and contemplation whose atmosphere shrank the vastness of the Royal Festival Hall to the intimacy of Schubert’s salon. Compare this to the expansiveness and breadth of the first movement which unfolded like a great river plotting its final course.
This for me was an example of how Schubert’s piano music should be played: unfussy (yet with a clear understanding of the importance of the music’s bold structures and harmonic landscape), witty, robust, melancholy, joyful, intimate and expansive. Richard Goode returns to the Festival Hall in 2017 in a programme of Beethoven – a concert I greatly look forward to.
Just to add that Goode played the entire programme from the score, with a page-turner (his wife in fact): at no point did this detract from his ability to communicate this wonderful music.
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 2015/16 season at St John’s Smith Square (SJSS) was heralded by real trumpets as two members of the London Mozart Players performed Stravinsky’s Fanfare for a New Theatre.
I like St John’s very much as a venue. A short walk from Westminster and nestled amongst government offices, it is London’s only Baroque concert hall (designed by Thomas Archer and completed in 1728), though its programmes feature a broad repertoire of music from early to uber-contemporary. As a former church, it boasts a fine acoustic and I have enjoyed some excellent piano recitals there, including concerts by Paul Badura-Skoda, Claire Hammond and Richard Uttley.
For 2015/16, SJSS becomes the temporary home of the International Piano Series (IPS), normally resident at the Southbank Centre, which is undergoing a much-needed upgrade. Highlights of the new IPS season include concerts by established artists such as Steven Osborne, Nikolai Demidenko, Jean-Efllam Bavouzet and Imogen Cooper as well as younger, up-and-coming pianists. My highlights from this series are concerts by Denis Koshukhin (music by Haydn, Brahms, Bartok, Liszt and Wagner trans. Lisz), Lukas Geniušas (Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and Prokofiev), Steven Osborne (Schubert, Debussy, Rachmaninoff) and Tamara Stefanovich (Copland, Carter, Ives). Full details about the series here
The major season highlight for me is Warren Mailley-Smith‘s 11-concert survey of Chopin’s complete solo piano music, commencing in September 2015. The concerts have a broadly chronological thread running through them, while each will explore a particular aspect of Chopin’s oeuvre, including the Mazurkas, Etudes, Ballades, Scherzi and ever-popular Preludes. This promises to be a real treat for audiences and a marathon undertaking for Warren, who by his own admission, adores this music and is looking forward to a year of total immersion in Chopin. (A detailed preview of the series and an interview with Warren will appear in a later post.)
Fast-forward to today, and Rolf Hind’s fascinating and eclectic Occupy the Pianos festival returns to SJSS in September. 10 concerts over 3 days feature brand new works together with music by Morton Feldman, John Cage and John Adams. Further information about the series here
There is yet more to excite pianophiles in an excellent series of lunchtime concerts, including recitals by the Françoise-GreenDuo in which first meets second Viennese School alongside new commissions (21 January, 25 February, 31 March, 7 April, 12 May 2016), together with concerts by Viv McLean (1 October, with soprano Sarah Gabriel) and Joseph Houston (10 December, Debussy, Messiaen, Feldman, Liszt and new works by Colin Matthews and Simon Holt).
My 2015/16 diary is already very full!
Full details of the 2015/15 season at St John’s Smith Square here (including a link to download the new season brochure)
I first heard French pianist Alexandre Tharaud at the Wigmore Hall in October 2013, and his performance of Bach, Schubert and Chopin left me somewhat underwhelmed.
In his concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the International Piano Series, he left me wanting more….
How clever of Alexandre Tharaud to open his QEH concert with Schubert’s Moments musicaux, salon pieces which combine charm and tenderness with an unsettling edginess to create Schubert’s emotional and musical landscape in microcosm. From the opening notes of the first of the suite, Tharaud imbued the music with intimacy and set the tone for the whole evening, even in the more extrovert sentences of Ravel’s “Alborada del gracioso” from Miroirs. This was piano playing which encouraged concentrated listening.
He looks like he should still be at school, yet he plays with the commanding presence, exceptional technical facility and deep commitment a professional artist thrice his years would envy. He’s slight, floppy haired, yet he can bring power and richness to the boldest fortissimo passages, while his pianissimos are delicate whispers. Welcome to the world of Daniil Trifonov.
Superlatives quickly become redundant when attempting to describe the pianistic feats of this young artist, winner in 2011 of both the Tchaikovsky and Rubenstein Competitions, and still only 23. He’s already got a clutch of recordings under his belt, and is in demand around the world. His London concert marked his Royal Festival Hall debut (he has already played at the Wigmore and Queen Elizabeth Halls), and it was therefore a pity that due to an unfortunate, and probably accidental, concert clash with Behzod Abduraimov’s Wigmore Hall recital, the Festival Hall was not as full-to-bursting as it might have been for this eagerly-anticipated debut.
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