IPM critical round-ups 40 and 41

IPM roundup 40

Wigmore Hall: Sunwook Kim Oct 25; Alexei Volodin Nov 2; Martha Argerich and Alberto Portugheis December 12; Beatrice Rana Jan 16; Luca Buratto 23 Jan;

Barbican: Daniil Trifonov Jan 21;

Shoreditch Church: Melvyn Tan December 6


It was a quarter past seven, and I reckoned I had just enough time to nip into Tesco’s for some cough sweets before Daniil Trifonov’s recital a few streets away at 7.30. The boy on the till was maddeningly slow and the queue was getting restive, with the exception of a relaxed young man in bomber-jacket and jeans just ahead of me. He half-turned: Daniil Trifonov, clutching a jar of honey. Shouldn’t he be togged-up backstage, poised and ready for the off? ‘No problem, it’s OK,’ he smiled. What was the importance of the honey? ‘For energy.’ While patiently waiting his turn as if he had all the time in the world – and nothing much to do – he talked about his programme and the encores he would play, finally strolling off as cool as cucumber.

He was only four minutes late striding on stage immaculate in tails, before giving the most gruelling programme I’d heard in months, and he was immersed in ‘Von fremden Ländern’ before he’d even properly sat down. His touch had a laid-back delicacy as he progressed through Schumann’s Kinderszenen, giving each a charming characterisation without over-inflating its quality as a miniature, and weighting his chords with rare refinement. Then, like a racehorse released from the paddock, he was off into the same composer’s Toccata in C major Opus 7, going full pelt with demonic virtuosity: this seemed effortless. Next came the more serious business of Kreisleriana, which he had interrogated with such thoroughness that what emerged seemed at times like a new work.

There are many ways in which it can be played, but he found some I had never encountered before – sudden plunges into mystery, moments of unexpected intimacy – and he made the most of this fanciful and many-faceted work’s implicit licence to experiment with moods and effects. One could have disputed some of his readings, but the overall result was fascinating. The last movement’s comic imbalance between the hands came over with lovely tenderness. What was striking was that, while his body was lurching all over the place, his hands remained in near-constant contact with the keyboard.

He opened the second half with five Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues – their knotty and astringent counterpoint delivered with scrupulous precision – and rounded things off with Petrushka. If some of its effects were smudged, and Stravinsky’s line of thought too much pulled about, it still crowned the evening with some old-fashioned showmanship. He was playing on a Fazioli, but the pluses of that brand were here negated by a very ill-set damper, which meant that when a damped chord ended it was with an ugly twang.

As I have observed more than once in this magazine, Trifonov’s besetting sin has hitherto been to destroy the magic of his performances by grisly encores, many being his own compositions. This time he didn’t make that mistake, giving us two Medtner pieces instead. Yet his spell was more effectively ruined than usual: we emerged into the foyer to be ear-blasted by some grotesquely over-amplified rap.

An essential part of any concert experience consists of the echoes it leaves in the mind, and this repellent aural shock comprehensively trashed all possible echoes: I’ve never seen an audience so unanimously keen to get the hell out. Who sanctioned that? Do the classical-music and social-engineering departments of the Barbican not talk to each other? One understands how urgently the Barbican and Southbank Centre need to cultivate new audiences, but this sort of thing, if it were to happen often, could drive the bedrock audience away.

The Schumann which the young Italian pianist Luca Buratto played to celebrate his win at the Honens competition was the Opus 17 Fantasie, and his was a very full-blooded account. But the rest of his programme was even more interesting. He began with Byrd’s keyboard arrangement of his Lachrymae Pavan – the rich ornamentation of the melody sounding like clusters of over-ripe fruit on a modern instrument (another Fazioli) – but Buratto followed that with an account of Ades’ Darkness Visible which worked unusually well. This piece is what Ades describes as ‘an explosion’ of Dowland’s song, and it turns on the contrast between the overtones created by heavily-struck single notes and rapid repetitions of pianissimo notes. And since the hands were mostly very far apart, it made a perfect introduction to Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’, with its often empty middle register.

Here Buratto’s playing was masterly. The first movement was unhurried but powered by an exhilarating forward drive, and it eventually attained magnificence; the closing Allegro was like one single, unstoppably-smooth surge. I felt short-changed by his Andante, which had none of the grave mystery Beethoven surely intended, but its dry clarity represented virtue of a different sort. Back on Ades territory, we then got a finely calibrated account of Traced Overhead. A programme-note indicated that Buratto likes jigsaw puzzles, which could partly explain his Ades obsession.

Melvyn Tan made his name as a period-performance fortepianist, but in later life he’s reverted to the piano and its mainstream Romantic repertoire: to celebrate his sixtieth birthday, and also the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Spitalfields Music, he chose to give a recital tailor-made to honour that institution’s former executive director Judith Serota, and in the eighteenth-century church where many of its concerts are held.

Variations for Judith: Reflections on ‘Bist du bei mir’ is a collection of very short variations on an aria which Bach originally adapted for his wife Anna Magdalena: most of the composers are one-time artistic directors of the Spitalfields Festival, plus Richard Rodney Bennett, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Thea Musgrave, each of whose pieces had something special about them. Then came three tours de force: Judith Weir’s I’ve turned the page, dazzling in its liberated invention; Jonathan Dove’s tumultuously exhilarating Catching Fire getting its London premiere; and Liszt’s Three Concert Etudes, delivered by Tan with ease and grace.

Finally back to the Wigmore for three triumphs and a turkey. Martha Argerich is admirably loyal. She frequently plays under the baton of ex-husband Charles Dutoit, and shares a four-hand keyboard with ex-partner Steven Kovacevich, as she did in last year’s Proms with her childhood friend Daniel Barenboim. But she was ill-advised to use a four-hand recital to celebrate the 75th birthday of fellow-Argentinian Alberto Portugheis, who shared a teacher with her in childhood, and who at one point co-ran a London restaurant with her. Quite simply, he wasn’t up to it, and it was painful to see how the poetry we got from her end of the keyboard underlined the lack of it from his.

Alexei Volodin is noted for his virtuosity, but the usual critical superlatives can’t measure up to his latest London performance. ‘Shakespeare in Music’ was the title, and each of its elements was a winner. Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ emerged startlingly fresh and brilliantly differentiated, after which Volodin played Rachmaninov’s transcription of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Here Rachmaninov’s own pronouncement was faithfully honoured: ‘You can give these works colours. That is the most important thing for me in my piano interpretations. So you can make music live. Without colour it is dead.’ In Medtner’s Fairy Tale in C sharp minor the air was thick with densely interwoven melodies, thanks to this unassumingly formidable Russian, who closed his recital with Rachmaninov’s seldom-performed Piano Sonata No 1 in D minor.

The South Korean pianist Sunwook Kim may have won the Leeds competition in 2006, but we don’t hear him often in London, which is a pity. Mozart’s Rondo in A minor and Schubert’s Sonata in G D894 constituted the engaging first half of his recital, but his ‘Hammerklavier’ blew us away with a warrior-like opening movement and a finale which made wonderful sense of Beethoven’s labyrinthine line of thought.

Idly tuning one lunchtime into Radio 3, I found myself in the middle of a performance of the Goldbergs which instantly riveted me. It had force and an underlying tenderness; there was a blissful absence of didacticism, of anything tricksy in the tempi, and of any playing to the gallery; the whole work was so unerringly judged that I waited eagerly to hear the name of the perpetrator. It had to be someone in their maturity, but it clearly wasn’t Schiff, Hewitt, or any of the other usual suspects. Step forward twenty-three-year-old Beatrice Rana, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist from Italy, whom I will henceforth make strenuous efforts to hear live.


IPM roundup 41

Royal Festival Hall: Maurizio Pollini Mar 14

St Johns Smith Square: Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard Jan 24

Wigmore Hall: Elisabeth Leonskaja Jan 26; Nikolai Demidenko Feb 10

Barbican: Murray Perahia Feb 20

Milton Court: Mahan Esfahani Feb 3


When I go to a Maurizio Pollini recital, I always think back to an interview I did with him at his home in Milan in 1998. This was a man setting astronomically high standards for himself, and conflicted with doubts. He had just delivered a speech on Beethoven’s controversial metronome markings, but was now refusing to release it for publication. Asked why he hadn’t followed his acclaimed recording of the first part of Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier with the second part, he replied: ‘I had indeed an idea to study it, but then I was perplexed.’ Perplexed? He wouldn’t expand on why: it was as though he was walking a tightrope, with terrors unknown to the rest of us lurking below. Looking back on his fear-free childhood, he sounded wistful, as though adult knowledge weighed on him.

More practically, did he suffer from pre-performance nerves? ‘I do not feel anxiety about anything technical. It’s an anxiety in general, about the performance.’ Those of us who regularly attend his performances know what to expect these days. He’ll hurry onstage anxiously, and thoroughly mess up at least one of the works in the first half. But something will then click in his brain, after which he’ll play like the god he always was when on form; his encores will be flawless, and he’ll take leave of his adoring fans wreathed in smiles.

I missed his Southbank Chopin-and-Debussy programme in February, but for his recital in March he chose another programme faithfully reflecting his musical credo. In 1998 he had told me that the only music which interested him was ‘that composed in an uncompromisingly modern musical language, as Beethoven’s was in his time’. There should be no dilution of the avant-garde urge: ‘It is not for the composer to put water into his imagination.’

Maurizio Pollini - credit Mathias Bothor and DG

Maurizio Pollini – credit Mathias Bothor and Deutsche Grammophon

Thus we would begin with Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces Opus 11, followed by the same composer’s Six Little Piano Pieces Opus 19. We would then get unadulterated Beethoven: the ‘Pathetique’, the Sonata a Therese Opus 78, and finally the ‘Appassionata’. In the first set, Schoenberg was still working uneasily within the realm of tonality, and in the second he had proclaimed himself free of it. Pollini brought out the Scriabinesque quality in the first set, allowing shafts of emotion to shine intermittently through. To the second he brought a watchmaker’s dry precision: the music seemed to burn in a cold light. So far, this felt like a private communion, which he was sharing with us.

His ‘Pathetique’ opened with spacious grandeur, but proved a big disappointment. The first movement scudded along too fast, its fine detail smudged; there was no poetry in the Adagio, and the way he played the Rondo suggested that he couldn’t wait to be done with it. What on earth would he make of the technically much more demanding Opus 78?

The answer was an unusually fine-tuned performance, with the Allegro vivace rippling along with lovely poise. There were no particular revelations in his ‘Appassionata’, but it had Pollini’s authentic stamp throughout: Beethoven in a graceful, unaffected, and above all honest light. Then with the encores came the real Pollini magic: two late Bagatelles, one serene and the other playful, delivered with definitive authority. Phew! Job done.

When Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays Messiaen solo, the earth moves; when he is joined for Messiaen by his partner Tamara Stefanovich, it shakes. And thus it was when the pair sat down to play Visions de l’Amen for two pianos. Messiaen wanted his music to sound ‘iridescent, subtle, even voluptuous’, it needed to be ‘like new blood, an unknown perfume, an unsleeping bird… a theological rainbow’. All of which Aimard, as the composer’s anointed successor, is well fitted to evoke, and Stefanovich is now so perfectly attuned to Aimard’s vision that they play as one. He took the lower part, she took the extraordinarily virtuosic higher one, and the result was a Herculean achievement, Stefanovich so exhausted by the end that she could barely stand upright to acknowledge the ovation. And what an agreeable venue this Georgian church is for piano events: Brahms’s Sonata in F minor for two pianos Opus 34b – better known in its chamber form as the Piano Quintet Opus 34 – came across with a wonderfully dark resonance.

Other dependable pleasures during the period under review came thanks to Elisabeth Leonskaya and Murray Perahia: the former delivering forcefully Soviet-style – and I use that adjective as a compliment – Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert, and the latter directing two Beethoven concertos from the keyboard with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. But the revelation of the year so far was what Nikolai Demidenko did with Scarlatti.

I expected him to stick to the score – and he did – but his Scarlatti was still unlike any I have ever heard. This is another pianist from the Soviet school, and his sound was appropriately big throughout, but more important was the scale of his conception. Exploiting the colours latent in his Fazioli, he banished all thoughts of the harpsichord for which these little masterpieces were written, and created instead a canvas which was almost symphonic. On that the paint was lovingly applied: swooningly smooth legatos, staccato outbursts to make you jump, whirling figurations to make the head spin, and all delivered with extreme precision. Every bar of this recital was riveting, and since most of the pieces he had chosen were outside the usual handful, it was revelatory in that respect too.

Scarlatti was the subject of much of Mahan Esfahani’s latest exploit at Milton Court, in which the Britten Sinfonia under Thomas Gould’s leadership shared the honours. First John Woolrich’s new orchestral arrangements of three of the sonatas were performed – most illuminatingly – after which Esfahani played four with his customary showman’s dazzle. He then premiered a new harpsichord concerto written for him by Francisco Coll: a subfusc little piece which did create a new sound-world – its second movement made the harpsichord sound like an oud – even if some of its effects could have been better realised with a piano. On the other hand, De Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto, with skeleton instrumentation, worked beautifully.

Not enough people know how adventurous the programming is in this beautiful new chamber hall, because it’s basically seen as just an adjunct to the Barbican. As the equally excellent King’s Place did, Milton Court will take years to build a regular audience, but the charismatic Mahan is just the man to give it the promotional push it needs.





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