Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Return of Nelson Goerner

Nelson Goerner’s last Vancouver recital of Bach and Beethoven left a deep impression on me, and so it was with eager anticipation that I attended his concert yesterday afternoon.

The recital began with Brahms’ autumnal Klavierstücke, Op. 119. Goerner’s conception of the Intermezzo in B minor(Op. 119, No. 1) was one that stressed textual clarity of the voices, rather than the richness of the harmony. Perhaps it is because of this approach that conjured in my mind’s eyes a sparse and desolate musical landscape. The Intermezzo in E minor (Op. 119, No. 2) was played with a very good forward motion, and just a hint of the agitatothe composer calls for. His playing of the E major theme at m. 35 brought out the inner beauty of the music. I loved the breathtaking lightness and gracefulness with which he played the Intermezzo in C major(Op. 119, No. 3). Goerner’s account of the Rhapsodie in E-flat major(Op. 119, No. 4) stressed, I believe, the horizontal rather than the vertical aspect of the music. It was playing that was impassioned and impetuous, but never at the expense of textual clarity.

Goerner set a high bar for himself with his magisterial interpretation of Beethoven’s HammerklavierSonata (Op. 106) in his last Vancouver appearance. No less bracing was his account of the composer’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 57. There was and is something titanic about Goerner’s approach to Beethoven, which led me to wonder if this might have been how pianists like Busoni or Eugen d’Albert played these works. The artist towered over any technical demands the composer calls for, and was in control of every element of the vast canvas. In the brief theme and variations, there was an organic flow from the theme to the variations and then back to the theme again, as well as a sense of inevitability in the logic of the flow of the music. There was no doubt in my mind that this had been the most convincing playing of a Beethoven sonata I have heard in Vancouver in recent memory. 

I last heard Schumann’s Papillons(Op. 2) in a recital by Murray Perahia a few years back. Fine as that interpretation was, it paled in comparison with Goerner’s much more imaginative and vivid playing. The pianist succeeded in bringing out the unique characteristics of each of the movements. His playing of the rapid mood changes in movement ten (vivo) was simply thrilling. In movement 11, I loved how Goerner ravishingly shaped and voiced the phrase at mm. 6-7, mm. 18-19, mm. 54-55, and again at mm. 62-63. In the Finale, he succeeded in bringing out the slightly whimsical character of the music, and ended the work, as the saying goes, with a whimper and not with a bang.

Knowing the awesome technical ability of the pianist, it was not surprising that his playing of Schumann’s Toccata(Op. 7) would be technically impregnable. What was amazing was that he managed to make this somewhat awkward and technically almost cruel work sounding musical. It was brave of the pianist to have programmed this work. Certainly he carried it off with no less than absolute aplomb and confidence. 

I had slight reservations about Emanuel Ax’s Chopin interpretation from last week’s recital. I can say unreservedly that Nelson Goerner is a genuine Chopin player. In the Nocturne in C minor(Op. 48, No. 1), the opening section was played with a frightening stillness, and even more so in the Poco piu lentosection (m.25) – really giving the impression of the calm before the storm. His playing of the demanding middle section was epic. The Nocturne in E-flat major(Op. 55, No. 2) was simply stated, and was played with a tinge of beautiful sorrow, a sense of regret, as well as a real sense of organic unity from first note to last. 

Even in today’s world full of young keyboard titans, not many can truly capture the elegance and style of Chopin’s Andante spinato et Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22. Nelson Goerner certainly did bring off this work brilliantly yesterday. The opening andantewas played with a ravishing sound as well as a beautiful flow. The difficult polonaisewas played not only with technical assurance – something many of today’s pianists have in spades – but with panache, and with a real sense of rightness stylistically. It was a performance that deservedly brought the audience to its feet.

Goerner gave us two encores – Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth., played with an otherworldly beauty, and Francis Poulenc’s Caprice Italien(from the Napoli Suite), played with utter charm and a breathtaking disregard for the work’s technical demands. 

Nothing in yesterday’s recital distracted me from my thought that Nelson Goerner is one of today’s major pianists. For those who had not heard him play, or do not own one of his many fine recordings, I urge that you remember this name, and try to experience his artistry as soon as you can.

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