Wigmore Hall: Gabriela Montero, Nov 14; Daniil Trifonov, Dec 7u; Ivana Gavric, Dec 28
St John’s Smith Square: Vikingur Olafsson, Nov 15; Julian Jacobson, Nov 26
It’s not keyboard artistry which draws the crowd to Gabriela Montero’s performances. It’s improvisation, for which she has a phenomenal talent. Few pianists risk exposing themselves in this way, and when they do it’s usually by playing safe. Montero really does improvise: I once had an opportunity to test her on this, giving her an obscure melody which she couldn’t possibly have prepared for, and the result had a freshness and genuineness which couldn’t have been faked.
At the Wigmore hall she too played safe, however, presumably because this was a Radio 3 live broadcast. What she would play us, she said, was an elegy for Venezuela, ‘my broken country’, and she gave us five minutes of disarmingly down-home lyricism. Her recital had begun with an account of Schumann’s Kinderszenen whose first few numbers were both painfully fortissimo and heavy-handed; only in the last three did she find any poetry. The main work was Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata No 2 in B minor Opus 61, the product of hard times in 1943, with the composer himself describing it as ‘a trifle, something impromptu’. But if that was an accurate description of the first two movements – which are indeed undistinguished by his standards – the finale is a variation-and-fugue tour de force which Montero despatched with condign brilliance.
Vikingur Olafsson has carried off all the available pianistic prizes in his native Iceland: if his debut recital at St John’s is anything to go by, he could do the same in London. He’s apparently blessed with synaesthesia, and thinks deeply about tonality; after beginning with Bach’s sixth Partita, the rest of his programme consisted solely of works in the key of F minor, which in his mind conjures up blueness.
The Bach Partita is for him green. And for me, his interpretation of that work was simply majestic. I have never before heard the Toccata played so like a fantasia, taking us at a gentle pace through a landscape of such mysteriousness and beauty. His sound was ravishingly pure in the movement’s opening sweep; the arpeggiations generated chaste power as this magisterial improvisation got into gear. The ornamentation and dotted rhythms of the Corrente were used to speed things along, and the Sarabande had a singing plangency. The jagged lines of the concluding Gigue, as its theme was turned inside-out, back to front, and upside down, emerged jubilant and triumphal.
Three Chopin Etudes, followed by that composer’s fourth Ballade, completed the first half, after which Brahms’s third sonata completed the F minor picture. In Vikingur’s hands the Allegro maestoso became a procession of giant towers of sound, and, if he pushed the lyricism of the second movement too hard for its own good, his treatment of the work as a whole revealed how prophetic it was for its time, with its tonal and textural experiments, and its ingenious thematic cross-references. The first encore was a finely cross-hatched miniature by Rameau, the second a late Chopin Mazurka which Vikingur turned into the soul of wistfulness. This 33-year-old Viking has a generously outsized musical personality; let’s hope he comes back soon.
Julian Jacobson has been giving a series of recitals to celebrate his seventieth birthday at St John’s Smith Square. In his hands, the opening Allegro of Schubert’s Sonata in D D850 went like a whirlwind, with powerful waves of semi-quaver triplets crashoing onto big chordal rocks; in the Andante there was steel in his sound at the outset, and intense charm on its decorated return. He met inventively the challenge of the Scherzo – how to colour and characterise different stations along the movement’s meandering route – and his delivery of the tongue-in-cheek metronomic finale was fanciful.
In the first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ sonata Jacobson’s sound had a restrained grandeur, and – as he had promised before beginning that work – he included a note in the Allegretto’s theme with which nobody else has thought to observe, but which even a glance at the manuscript would confirm as Beethoven’s intention. So what if it resulted in that harmonic no-no, consecutive fourths? So what indeed. After all this, Prokofiev’s seventh sonata gave him the excuse for a lot more virtuosity; the second movement became a tone poem, and the finale was a pure distillation of volcanic energy. Nice to round things off with Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major, nobly conceived.
The rediscovery of Grieg’s piano music continues, with the latest exponent being Ivana Gavric. Playing ‘The goblins’ bridal procession at Vossevangen’ – a quintessentially Griegian title – plus two other pieces from his Slatter Opus 72, she ably brought out the character of his Nordic sound-world, and the drone-effect of the Hardanger fiddle on which he had first heard this music. This recital had begun with a finely-shaded performance of an early Haydn sonata, followed by four under-characterised Chopin Mazurkas and a technically uneasy account of that composer’s second Scherzo. But Schumann’s Kreisleriana brought even greater disappointment. This should brim with colour and excitement, but it didn’t do so here. Gavric played it carefully and accurately. Until she learns to love it – and maybe also to love herself – she will never find the key to Schumann’s most exuberant keyboard work.
Daniil Trifonov’s Wigmore programme sounded intriguing: variations on – or pastiches of – Chopin pieces by Mompou, Schumann, Grieg, Samuel Barber, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov, all followed by Chopin’s second piano sonata. And since most of the works are seldom performed, the programme certainly had freshness. Mompou’s variations on Chopin’s seventh Prelude seemed to wear a wide grin as they progressively subverted the poise of the original, and they took off into realms of virtuosity which that Spanish composer normally never inhabits. Grieg’s little hommage was deft and brilliant, Barber’s Nocturne was disguised as a homage to Chopin’s precursor John Field, and Tchaikovsky’s Un poco di Chopin was a charming jeu d’esprit.
Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin Opus 22 was designed to be the centre of gravity of this group of pieces, and it started promisingly, purveying all the effects which Rachmaninov had made his own, and which would make his Corelli Variations – which he composed thirty years later – such a wondrous experience. But this early piece foundered in its own virtuosity: I lost count of the number of times it seemed on the verge of finishing, only to be jerked back into garrulous life. It was like listening to a compulsive speaker who can’t bear to stop. ‘And another thing… and another thing…’
The Chopin sonata itself was a thudding let-down. The first two movements had some original touches, but were despatched with brisk impatience, while the funeral march was a caricature –unrelieved fortissimo for the main theme, the second theme going at a glacial pace; the finale, which should feel ghostly, had no trace of mystery whatsoever. This young Russian can still dazzle, but his musical judgment is becoming desperately erratic. He needs a manager who will firmly grab the bridle when he goes careering off course.