Sokolov, Kissin, Schiff at Verbier; Ming Xie and Babayan at the Wigmore; Rorberts at the Barbican

Verbier can still spring surprises, even at the venerable age of twenty-five. Marking that anniversary with a gala concert this summer, they corralled more musical celebrities on stage than had ever been assembled before, or are ever likely to be assembled again. The first section of the concert consisted of a Bach Brandenburg concerto led by Pinchas Zukerman and backed wall-to-wall with string virtuosi including Maxim Vengerov, Leonidas Kavakos, Mischa Maisky, and Renaud Capucon.

Then it was the turn of the pianists, and a more mind-blowing cast one could hardly imagine. They came on in twos, threes, and fours, with finally eight pairs of hands simultaneously hammering out a four-piano arrangement of the overture to Rossini’s William Tell. Things began with an eight-hand two-piano sonata by Smetana – Evgeny Kissin paired with Yuja Wang (whose virtuosity he is on record as greatly admiring), and the young South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho partnered by that elder statesman Andras Schiff. I have never seen Wang look so happy and relaxed on stage – it made one realise what a strain she habitually puts herself under.

Then Cho was partnered by another sage – the American pianist Richard Goode, relaxing from his austere classical labours to luxuriate in Brahms’s charming Souvenir de la Russie. Then came a Russian interlude – Kissin, Daniil Trifonov, and Mikhail Pletnev in the latter’s six-hand arrangement of Jesu, joy of man’s desiring. Pletnev, who seemed to be everywhere in Verbier this year, no longer looks boyish – his legal tribulations in the Far East have taken their toll. The Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin joined Kissin and Trifonov – who now has the manner of a handsomely-bearded Russian monk – bringing an octogenarian maturity to Rachmaninov’s six-hand Romance. Then we got Wang under Schiff’s avuncular wing in two of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, followed by Kissin plus Trifonov in the same composer’s Italian Polka. Then came Rachmaninov’s Barcarolle, courtesy of Trifonov and his mentor Sergei Babayan, the ingrained elegance of this latter player infusing the piece with a special grace. Yet another new pairing followed, as Wang and the rapidly-rising Russian star Denis Kozhukhin played Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations.

I give all this detail because although the whole thing was good clean fun, it also opened a window on possible new musical landscapes: who likes playing what, and with whom, as well as who are not well-matched (Wang and Schiff, for example). An astute impresario – and there were some in the audience – could make a killing out of material like this.

On the next night Kissin played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 with the youthful Verbier Festival Orchestra, and I’ve never heard it sound so utterly majestic, nor Tchaikovsky’s ‘Reverie du soir’, which he played as an encore, sound so ineffably sweet. Andras Schiff nobly stepped in when Radu Lupu, due to play Beethoven’s G major Piano Concerto, was suddenly indisposed, but apart from some lovely moments in the first movement he seemed to have nothing interesting to say about it, and there were no intimations of Orpheus taming the Furies in the Andante.

But Grigory Sokolov’s recital was something else. It had sold out as soon as tickets were available, and security-men stood ready to repulse any fans trying to sneak in during the interval. This Russian pianist’s take on Schubert’s last Impromptus may be well-known, but the Haydn sonatas with which he began came over in a remarkably original guise. The power behind the little phrase opening No 32 in G minor was startling in its intensity: the bright, dry staccato quavers seemed chiselled out of granite, the ornamentation was sharply clipped, and the development became an urgent conversation between pedalled and un-pedalled phrases; this simple-seeming piece proved a grand, almost heroic creation. No 47 in B minor was another revelation, with the parade-ground smartness of the opening phrase answered lyrically; Sokolov swapped oils for watercolours in the minuet, with the Trio becoming a muted growl and the Presto going like the wind. The normally trite-sounding theme of the middle movement of the sonata in C sharp minor H XVI:36 had such a bloom on the notes that it was transformed, and its finale left a delicately questioning atmosphere in the crepuscular gloom in which he had chosen to play. It’s for moments like this that one goes to Verbier.

I missed Babayan’s Verbier recital by a day, but I had caught him two weeks previously at the Wigmore Hall, and I don’t have the superlatives to do justice to what I heard. He began with Vladimir Ryabov’s Fantasia in C minor Opus 21 In Memory of Maria Yudina, which is by any standards an extraordinary piece. Its five movements are packed with references to the works which that great Russian pianist used to play – Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, and Mussorgsky – as well as to Russian Orthodox chant, and although it’s not a ‘tonal’ work, it’s still firmly rooted in the diatonic world. But its spaciousness is majestic, and its sweep and swagger overpowering: in Babayan’s performance the ideas poured out in luxurious profusion and with unstoppably volcanic force. The rest of the first half segued without a break, from a motoric and darkly resonant account of Couperin’s Passacaille in C to a translucent rendering of Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel to a foray into the jewelled sound-world of some of Rameau’s best-loved clavecin hits. What made the whole thing remarkable was the way Babayan seemed to calmly massage the keys even when playing fortissimo; coaxing the most refined sweetness out of Rameau’s Le rappel des oiseaux, and delicately shading the ornamentation of the ‘Gavotte et doubles’ from the Nouvelles Suites, he caught the most fleeting poetry on the wing.

To three Mozart works in the second half he brought magic of a completely different kind. The Andante in F for mechanical organ emerged with witty mock-ceremony, while two of Mozart’s most-performed sonatas had me on the edge of my seat with every bar. This wasn’t due to any showy ‘originality’ in his approach, it was simply the white-hot intensity with which they were here conceived. By turns lyrical, operatic, and full-on orchestral, his interpretations drew delighted assent from the audience, as did his encore, a familiar Scarlatti sonata played with a most unfamiliar gentleness, after which, hand on heart, he took leave of us with a smile. Bumping into Ryabov in the interval, I said how fascinating I found his piece. ‘Ah yes,’ he replied. ‘But tonight it was played by a genius.’ To which I could only agree.

The young Chinese pianist Ming Xie comes garlanded with praise including a ‘phenomenal’ from Martha Argerich, and his tutorial pedigree is hugely promising: Sergei Babayan was his teacher at the Juilliard, with Emanuel Ax giving subsidiary tutelage. His Wigmore recital was the reward for winning the annual Guildhall Wigmore Prize, so expectations were high when he rushed out on stage like a greyhound out of the traps.

Two of Granados’s Goyescas came first. The opening of El amor y la muerte had a thunderousness out of which he spun noble poetry, and his account of El fandango de candil was clean and incisive, its rhythms thrillingly infectious: this was gloriously accomplished pianism. In Ravel’s Ondine he maintained a fastidious balance between the voices, Le gibet was smooth and fateful, and Scarbo had hurtling fury: his technical control was immaculate.

But Chopin’s Preludes were a test of a different sort, and there he came unstuck. Each of these tone poems inhabits its own sound-world, and requires its own touch, but Ming Xie had only two touches – hard, and even harder – and he reduced the fast pieces to a blur. No poetry of any kind got house-room here, and nothing was allowed to breathe: after each job-done he rushed on to deal with – and usually demolish – the next. The angry Preludes were the only ones to emerge unscathed. I wonder what his distinguished mentors would have made of all this; Emanuel Ax, whose sound is so fastidious, would have taken a very dim view. Is this the current Guildhall style?

Meanwhile at Milton Court, Paul Roberts, professor of piano at the Guildhall, gave the most scintillating lecture-recital on Debussy I have ever heard. He’s an acknowledged authority, having notched up a biography and many recordings, but unlike most authorities he knows how to draw his audience in, conveying deep ideas with engaging simplicity. It had never occurred to me that while Ravel heard authentic American jazz, the nearest Debussy ever got to it was the Folies Bergere; it was well worth pointing out that although Debussy saw the potential of film, he himself wrote cinematic music avant la lettre. The Symbolist poetry and painting which Roberts referenced was richly pertinent; his thumbnail verbal sketches – ‘Danseuses de Delphes’ suggesting ‘very loud music heard from afar’ – were helpfully evocative. Then he played the Preludes Book 1: ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ was curiously marred by memory lapses, but everywhere else Roberts’s virtuosity was brilliant.


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