Saturday, March 14, 2015

A Debut with Bach and Beethoven

One of the hallmarks of a successful musical performance is when, on top of the visceral excitement the music generates, an artist draws the audience into the emotional and spiritual world of the composers. Andras Schiff did this masterfully in his recent recital here, and I knew that Nelson Goerner, making his Vancouver debut last night, would have a, shall we say, a tough act to follow.

J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 6 in E Minor, BWV 830, has the largest canvas of the six, large in scope as well as in emotional range, and the most technically difficult. Goerner’s performance of this great work was certainly a pianistic tour de force, but unfortunately not more than that. In the opening Toccata, the pianist failed, to my ears, to fathom the profundity and the gravity of the music. It also lacked a certain feeling of spaciousness, and of musical tension. I believe that the artist could have made greater use of the brief moments of silence in between musical ideas, especially right before the arrival of the fugue (m. 26). In the great fugue, I do commend Goerner in the clarity of the voices and textures, but again, it was not a spiritual journey, such that with the return of the opening musical idea (m. 89), it did not evoke a sense of great emotional release.

I do not believe that the repeats in the dances should be observed just for the sake of observing them. Goerner observed every repeat in the dances, but played them exactly the same way as he did the first time.  I feel that repeats should be played only if the artist has something different to say about the music.

Goerner displayed an incredible deftness and lightness of touch in the Corrente as well as the rhythmically tricky Tempo de Gavotta, but it sounded more like, forgive me, Scarlatti rather than Bach. Even in the great Sarabande, it became like a series of beautiful notes, rather than a sense of time standing still. The artist very successfully navigated the incredible complexities of the fugue-like Gigue, and it was truly stunning piano playing. Mr. Goerner is a young man; he has all the time in the world to plunge the depths of Bach. To me, he is at the beginning of this incredible journey.

Of all the “great” composers, Felix Mendelssohn is a figure that sometimes puzzles me. The composer of the great Violin Concerto in E Minor, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Piano Trio in D Minor, and the joyous Octet in E-flat Major, music that are, to me, divinely inspired, also wrote a lot of music that are merely effective. The Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, Op. 28, the so-called Scottish Sonata, is one such piece. To my ears, it is a piece, written by a great pianist, reveling in the act (and joy) of playing the piano. To that end, Goerner succeeded admirably, and the playing was one of great sweep and panache. Musically and pianistically, it was a more successful performance than one given by Murray Perahia years ago.

It is difficult to believe that we would be hearing Beethoven Hammerklavier twice in one season (Steven Osborne gave a wonderful performance of this work a few weeks ago). Goerner was a different pianist in the Beethoven, and it was a performance of total commitment, and of great beauty and depth. He understood and realized the construction and architecture of the 1st movement, resulting in a performance of grandeur and excitement.

In the Scherzo, the pianist understood the unique humour in late Beethoven, the pregnant pauses, the Prestissimo scale-run at m. 112 and brief tremolo that follows (m. 113-114) were particularly effective as well as truly humourous. I was particularly moved by Goerner’s playing of the tremendous Adagio sostenuto, which was certain, as Beethoven instructed, Appassionato e con molto sentimento. Here, the artist succeeded in drawing us into the emotional core of the music. The final three-voice fugue was played with absolute confidence and conviction, and stunning trills! To me, the performance of this great work was masterful, and completely satisfactory.

After a well-deserved ovation, the Goerner gave us two items for “dessert”, a Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s rhythmically intriguing Nocturne, and Felix Blumenfeld’s (Vladimir Horowitz’s teacher) Etude for the Left Hand. The performance of the Blumenfeld was truly breathtaking. One would almost be tempted to say that Mr. Goerner has the greatest left-hand in the music world. It was an incredible feat of pianism.

We are truly fortunate to have the Vancouver Chopin Society as well as the Vancouver Recital Society to keep the solo recital alive in our community. We await the joys of further musical discoveries in the next few months and coming concert seasons.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Making Magic

Yesterday afternoon, the air within the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver seemed more rarefied during Andras Schiff’s magnificent recital.

There are for me, two kinds of musician, ones that draw our attention to his or her incredible physical ability at the instrument, and a small and select group, to which Sir Andras Schiff belongs, that transcends his or her instrument, so that the audience is aware of only the beauty of the message, and not the medium. The former group of artists gives us excitement, but the latter brings us into communion with the inner, spiritual realm of the music.

Schiff began his programme with the three principal notes of the C Major chord, in Haydn’s Sonata in C Major, Hob XVI:50. Alfred Brendal once said that during a performance, an artist should lose and find oneself at the same time. Schiff was completely absorbed into Haydn’s sound world; yet the performance was one of wholeness, where the first notes led inevitability to the last chord. Every note was like a pearl within a perfect necklace. Every pause and fermata, even the brief time in between movements, held us in breathless suspense until we hear the next sound. In Alfred Brendel’s lecture on humour in music of the Classical period a few years back, the pianist discussed the third movement of this work at length, highlighting the rambunctiousness of the music. Schiff’s playing of the movement did indeed bring out the humour, but in a way that inspires not a belly laugh, but a gentle chuckle.

I had heard the pianist play Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op. 109, before, in Seattle, where he generously gave us the entire sonata as an encore to his performance of the Goldberg Variations! (This brings to mind the story of Rudolf Serkin playing the entire Goldberg Variations as an encore, at the end of which about four people remained in the audience.) For me, yesterday’s performance towered even over that Seattle performance. In the third movement, one rarely hears one variation leads so seamlessly and logically into the next. In the theme and variations, Schiff, I feel, came as close to Beethoven’s markings – Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung – as I have heard. There were a few particularly magical moments in the performance (which is saying a lot) - the final diminuendo at the end of the first movement, the beginning of the B section in the final movement’s fourth variation (m. 106), and the almost unbearably beautiful refrain of the theme at the end, which gave me the feeling of returning from a long and incredible journey. At the end of the sonata, the audience appeared to have been in a trance, not daring to break the magic of the moment by applauding.

Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 545, has been slaughtered by so many piano students, that it really takes a truly great performer to remind us of what a jewel this deceptively simple piece really is. Years ago, I heard a magnificent performance of this sonata by Radu Lupu. Schiff’s performance yesterday was equally beautiful. Schiff observed all the repeats in the sonata, but interjected many tasteful and deliciously beautiful ornaments in the repeats, including a little cadenza at the fermata (m. 52) of the third movement. Schiff really highlighted the beauty of the second movement, and reminding us of its harmonic adventurousness.

In a masterclass, when Murray Perahia was working with a student on the first movement of Schubert’s Sonata in C Minor, D. 958, the pianist commented that this work really belongs to the emotional and sound world of Winterreise. Schiff’s performance of this sonata reminded me of Perahia’s comment. Of all of Schubert’s late sonatas, this work is surely the darkest, angriest, and most demonic. Schiff’s playing of the first movement really highlighted the contrast and constant shifting between the highly dramatic and the extreme lyricism. His voicing of the chords, particularly in the first two movements, was particularly beautiful. In the extended fourth movement, from its gently rollicking opening theme to the determined C Minor perfect cadence that ended the work, Schiff held our attention throughout and made us forget the “heavenly length” of the movement, and the work.

Other than the incredible pianism, musicianship, and a lifetime of musical thinking that went behind the performance, Schiff’s programme was so well thought out that, from the first notes of the Haydn to the end of the Schubert, the entire performance felt like one long breath. As we walked out of the hall after the performance and breathed in the winter air, the world seemed like a better place. Once again, in this age of ready-made music, where we can have classical music, as our local radio station reminds us constantly, “on demand”, performances like yesterday’s remind us of the magic of live music. How fortunate we are that this great artist has chosen to make Vancouver one of his musical homes.

2016 seems like such a long time to wait until Andras Schiff visits us again.  

Patrick May