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.

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