Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Auspicious Debut

Yesterday afternoon pianist Lukáš Vondráček made a highly successful Vancouver recital debut under the auspices of The Vancouver Chopin Society. The fact that a sizable audience came out for the concert – even on Super Bowl Sunday - gives us the hope that the solo recital is very much alive and well.

The young artist began his formidable programme with Franz Schubert’s massive Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960. It has been a few years since every pianist seemed to be playing this sonata in recitals, and so I was eager to reacquaint myself with this old friend. 

The first thing I noticed with Vondráček’s playing is clarity of textures. His use of pedal was sparse, and he really allowed us to hear Schubert’s subtle harmonic changes in the left hand. The G-flat major theme was not played in the dreamy way as many pianists would. The crescendochords (mm. 34-35) that transitions back to the opening chorale theme was played with a sharper attack than I have heard, and the return of the chorale sounded almost heroic (Schubert’s marking was forte). I liked the balance between the left hand theme and the right hand harmonic changes in the F-sharp minor theme (m. 48). Vondráček chose to play the repeat of the exposition – I believe he wanted to maintain the balance and architecture of the movement - thereby allowing us to hear Schubert’s quite extended first ending to the section. The ffand ffz outbursts before the return of the exposition were very effectively done indeed. Schubert lavished the coda with an incredible number of dynamic indications, all of which were realized by the pianist. 


Vondráček’s playing of opening of the Andante sostenutomovement reminded me of a string quartet, with the violas and celli playing pizzicato notes while the 1stand 2ndviolins give us the main theme. Certainly he made this very clear for us with the clarity he lavished on the left hand staccatos. The A major section was played with a feeling of repose, and I liked the way he projected the theme with the sextuplet accompaniment. In the return of the C-sharp minor section, the pianist certainly painted a picture of bleakness that I feel was Schubert’s intention. 

The third movement was played with just the right degree of skittishness, and Schubert’s indication of delicatezzawas very evident in the playing, and Vondráček brought out the humour of the off-balanced, almost limping theme of the Trio.


I was interested in the way he played the left hand fpoctave G that opens the fourth movement. A true fpis almost impossible to achieve on the piano, since the sound could not be changed once it is made on the instrument. I think Vondráček tries to achieve this quasi-accent by deliberately playing it softer, thereby contrasting it with the theme that follows. The playing in this movement had the requisite brilliance the music calls for. In my mind, the coda and the almost triumphal nature of the ending should be played almost like a Pyrrhic victory – like the ending of Shostakovich’s 5thsymphony. I do not think that was how Vondráček thought of this, because he certainly brought the sonata to a resoundingly brilliant conclusion. 


Throughout the performance, I found myself being fascinated by the pianist’s perspective even more than Schubert’s design. It was a fascinating look at this all-too-familiar work, bringing our attention to the amazing details within the score, rather than conveying the valedictory mood as most pianists would – a Toscanini rather than a Furtwängler approach to this music.


Our young artist began the second half with Schumann’s lovely Arabeske, Op. 18, and played it with a charm and disarming simplicity completely opposite to the Schubertian sound world of the first half.


The performance continued with the composer’s Carnaval, Op. 9. Once again, Vondráček’s conception of this work forced me to re-examine the details in Schumann’s score. 


Most pianists play the opening of the Préambulewith a full fortissimo, perhaps forgetting that there is a crescendoonly a few measures later. Vondráček seemed to underplay the opening I – IV progression, and then really took the crescendo that leads up to the end of m. 6. I also noticed that the composer indicated Quasi maestosofor this movement, quasibeing the operative word here. Again, in the Più moto(m. 25), he underplayed the brilliance and vividness of the music and then let it build – again a very Furtwängler-like approach, and one that Vondráček employed for many movements in the work. In Arlequin, the two-note rising motif is followed by a 16th-note rest; Vondráček made use of this rest to give the music a sort of hesitation. 


In Valse noble(Un poco maestoso), Vondráček again allowed the music to build by underplaying the rising theme of the opening. The molto teneramentesection (Schumann indicated this twice within a few measures) was truly beautifully and indeed tenderly played. It was only at the return of the main theme that he really allowed the emotion to pour forth. He gave us a serious rather than dreamy Eusebius, and he really contrasted the impetuousness of the opening in Florestanwith the lyricism of the Papilliontheme (m. 19). Vondráček really observed the many LuftpauseinCoquette (and also in Réplique), indeed brining out the “coquettish” character of this movement. 


Vondráček conjured up a real storm in Papillons, thereby really contrasting it with the scherzandonature – played with amazing lightness – of the A.S.C.H.-S.C.H.A.(Lettres dansantes) movement. At the end of Chiarina, he held on to the final notes slightly, transitioning it without a pause to, and almost allowing the harmonies to “dissolve” into the first bass notes of Chopin(a devastating caricature of the composer). In Chopin, many pianists play the repeat with a contrasting dynamic, something not indicated by the composer. Vondráček played the repeat of the movement with the same dynamic level, but managed to lavish different details within the music. Reconnaissancewas played with amazing finger control, perfectly conveying Schumann’s sempre staccatoindication, something that can also be said about the Pantalon et Columbinemovement.


It came as no surprise that the Paganinimovement was played with a resounding virtuosity and note-perfect accuracy – normally playing all the notes is of secondary importance, but Vondráček’s incredible playing of this movement did remind me of Auden’s phrase, “Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.”


I liked how Vondráček brought out the hurrying-scurryingcharacter of Pause, effectively leading us, with a real sense of inevitability, into Marche des “Davidsbündler” contre les Philistins. Again, Vondráček did not “go all out” at the beginning of the movement, but allowed the music to build until its incredible conclusion. The pacing as well as the many shifts in mood within the music were done to perfection.


To those who are familiar with this music, Vondráček’s approach may seem very different at first hearing. I did, however, feel that his musical decisions were not arbitrary, being different for the sake of it. I believe that this young musician, still at the outset of his musical development, was really trying to offer us a re-examination of this very familiar music. It was only when I “hear” the concert again with the score that I found that he was really trying to play what the composer wrote. 


As an encore, Vondráček offered us a relative novelty – Josef Suk’s Piseň lásky(translated as “Song of Love” or “Love Song”), Op. 7, No. 1. It is a beautiful work, and was beautifully played. Vondráček obviously felt strongly about this music, and lavished it with a depth of feeling as well as a large palette of sound colours. 


All in all, a very auspicious debut by a major young artist; whether or not we agree with his interpretation, Vondráček is obviously a serious musician and musical thinker, and I believe that his artistic journey is one that we would do well to follow.












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