When is a piano not a piano?

When it submits to the dizzying, audacious Musica Ricercata. The Wigmore Steinway found new voices – drums, horns, tinkling bells and great bellowing bass rumbles – in Roman Rabinovich’s mesmerisingly theatrical and witty performance of Ligeti’s eleven-movement musical algorithm. Based on the Baroque ricercar, the set of pieces are linked by a gradual reveal of pitches and structural progression, culminating in a fugue. This was an ambitious and, for some, uncompromising opening to a concert which also comprised music by Bach and Schubert. As befits this musician who is also an artist, Rabinovich drew myriad colours from the instrument, all infused with a rhythmic bite and vibrant sparkle which took full advantage of the crisp tuning of the piano.

That same rhythmic bite and richly-hued sound palette found a different voice in Schubert’s piano sonata in c minor, D958. Composed in 1828 and completed shortly before the composer died, this is his hommage to Beethoven, and the unsuspecting listener could easily be forgiven for mistaking this for one by the old radical himself. Yet Schubert’s more introspective nature is always there, in the shifting piquant harmonies and mercurial volte-faces of emotion and pace. Those who favour the “Schubert knew he was dying” approach to the last three sonatas would have been disappointed: Rabinovich’s performance proclaimed “Choose life!”, particularly in the rugged (but never earnest) orchestral vigour of that deeply Beethovenian opening movement, and the rollicking, toe-tapping tarantella finale (which had a woman across the aisle from me air-pedalling frantically while jiggling up and down in her seat). The second movement was a hymn-like sacred space of restrained elegance and mystery, oh so redolent of Beethoven in reflective mood, yet unmistably Schubert in its intimacy and emotional breadth.

The Bach Partita, which came between Ligeti and Schubert, tended towards romanticism (no bad thing – I play Bach with a romantic tendency), while the bright sound of the piano afforded some delightful filigree ornamentation.

Based on what I heard last night, I look forward to hearing Rabinovich’s new Haydn piano sonatas recording (the second of which is in production).


Wigmore Hall, Friday 25th January 2019

Ligeti
Musica Ricercata
Bach
Partita in D, BWV828
Schubert
Piano Sonata in C-minor, D958

Roman Rabinovich, piano


Meet the Artist – Roman Rabinovich

On Artistic Process

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Photo credit: Marco Borggreve
Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

It would be foolish of me to attempt to review harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s magical Wigmore Hall recital in detail, as I have neither the knowledge of the mechanics of the instrument nor familiarity with the repertoire to do justice his performance. I “dabbled” with the harpsichord while at school, playing continuo in a Baroque group, and now I occasionally play a friend’s instrument, more to attempt to understand some of Bach’s writing in pieces I am learning on the piano, than any serious commitment to the instrument. For years, I felt it was best left to early music and Baroque specialists.

I grew up listening to my parents’ LPs of Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations, and believed these were the benchmark against which all other interpretations of this mighty work should be set. However, in 2011, after reading about the young Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani on Norman Lebrecht’s blog, I decided to take the plunge and review a harpsichord recital. In July 2011, at London’s elegant Cadogan Hall, a double debut took place: Mahan’s Proms debut and the first time ever a solo harpsichord recital was presented at the Proms. I called my review “Spellbound by Bach” because for the full hour of the concert that is the state in which Mahan’s playing put us. Credited with bringing the harpsichord “out of the closet”, Mahan’s approach captivated and enthralled. He made the instrument – and the music – appear modern, newly-wrought.

So, when I and the friend who owns the harpsichord rocked up at the Wigmore on Friday night I knew we were in for an exceptional evening of music.

The pieces by Byrd drew inspiration from dances and songs, some toe-tapping and rousing, others stately and elegant, and religious texts, written by a composer living in a country poised on the cusp of change, as England sloughed off the Middle Ages and stepped confidently into the Renaissance. Some of the works were delicate, fleeting, poignant, others proud and courtly. All were beautifully presented, Mahan highlighting the subtleties of sound and touch possible on the instrument. During a pause in the performance, Mahan talked engagingly about Byrd’s importance in the canon of English music, and the forward-pull of his compositional vision. I was struck, not for the first time on hearing Mahan, at the range of tone, colours and moods he was able to achieve with the instrument.

After the interval, a selection works by Bach from the ‘Musical Offering’, a collection of canons and fugues and musical “riddles” which Bach composed in response to a challenge from Frederick the Great (and to whom they are dedicated). A three-part fugue and a six-part fugure (Ricercars) and a “Canon in tones” showed Bach at his most esoteric, teasing and “modern”, which set the scene nicely for, what was, for me, the highlight of the evening – the complete harpsichord music of Gyorgi Ligeti, which recalls Renaissance and Baroque models (the Passacaglia and Chaconne).

Again, Mahan introduced the works, explaining that in the Soviet Eastern Bloc, the harpsichord and early music were considered dangerously reactionary and composers and musicians were not permitted to write for or play the harpsichord. (Interestingly, a number of key modern composers and champions of the harpsichord are from former Eastern Bloc countries.) Mahan then explained that the second harpsichord on the stage was a rather special instrument, a modern harpsichord with nine pedals, a kind of “prepared piano” of the harpsichord world, capable of some extraordinary, other-worldly, sounds – amply demonstrated by Mahan in his performance of the works by Ligeti.

The Passacaglia Ungherese was redolent of the falling figures and ground basses of the music of Bach and his contemporaries; by contrast, Continuum was a fleeting sonic flurry, its strange sound-world recalling an alarm, breaking glass, an angry mosquito. (Ligeti used the harpsichord for this piece because the rapid speed would be almost impossible to achieve on the heavier action of piano.) To close, Mahan played Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock, a tour de force of rhythm and sonic textures suggesting the plucked sound of a modern guitar. The basis of the work is a Chaconne, a set of variations over a pounding, repeating chord pattern (the basis for much jazz and rock music). It was an energetic – and energising – close to a stunning and unusual programme.

For an encore, a short work by Purcell: simple, elegant, perfect. Afterwards, we queued up the stairs to the green room of the Wigmore to congratulate Mahan on a truly miraculous evening of music making.

Mahan argues the case for a modern appreciation of the harpischord and its repertoire far better than I can. Read his guest blog for Gramophone here

My Meet the Artist interview with Mahan Esfahani (from 2012)

Review of Mahan Esfahani’s Prom’s debut

I’m flagging up this interesting collaboration on behalf of trumpeter Simon Desbruslais, a recent Meet the Artist interviewee……

On Monday 8th October, Simon will be performing with the Ligeti Quartet at Holywell Music Room, Oxford, in two works for the unusual combination of trumpet and string quartet. Both pieces are new commissions, and receive their world premiere on Monday evening: Quintet for Trumpet and Strings (2009) by Robert Keeley, and Simultaneously Sovereign and Invaded (2011) by his student, Steve Hicks. Completing the cycle, music by Keeley’s former composition teacher, Franco Donatoni, will also feature with works for solo trumpet and viola.

The concert will also feature music by Gyorgy Ligeti, including his Poeme Symphonique (1962) for 100 clockwork metronomes. If you have a clockwork metronome, the Ligeti Quartet would love to hear from you. Go along to the concert, and in exchange for the loan of your metronome, you will receive a free ticket.

This promises to be fascinating and unusual evening of music. Further information about the concert here

My Meet the Artist interview with Simon Desbruslais