Sustained Interpretative Probing by Piers Lane in Rachmaninov and Schubert

01/01/2015

 Rachmaninov and Schubert: Piers Lane (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 30.12.2014 (CS)

Rachmaninov:   Moment musicaux in B minor Op.16 No.3
Préludes Op.23
Schubert: Moments Musicaux D.780 No.6 in A flat
Piano Sonata in A D.959

Ending a year of many very satisfying ‘moments musicaux’ at the Wigmore Hall in 2014, pianist Piers Lane juxtaposed musical miniatures with more luxuriant forms, highlighting the contrasts between the yearning soulfulness of Rachmaninov with the robust dynamism of Schubert as well as the pianistic eloquence which the composers have in common.

The recital was notable for Lane’s sustained interpretative probing as much as for the pianist’s technical assurance and attention to musical detail.  Thus, Rachmaninov’s Op.23 Préludes (1901-03), each of which embodies a distinct mood or character, proved a perfect vehicle through which to demonstrate the breadth of Lane’s expressivity.

In the first F# minor Prélude, the shadow of Chopin hung over the mournful melody while the chromatics of the left-hand accompaniment were rich and dark, although significant motifs in the middle voices were clearly articulated.  From the haunting pianissimo chords of the close burst the stormy Bb Prélude: the sweeping left-hand arpeggios drove forward vigorously in the outer sections, while the more lyrical central episode reversed the hands’ roles, transferring the melody to the tenor register and offering a brief respite before the stormy conclusion.  The brilliant piano writing was embraced with confidence and energy, and there was a wonderful brightness to the busy passagework and cascades.  Lane effectively brought forth the march-like character of the D minor Tempo di minuetto which follows, using a light touch to summon a military staccato and making the texture feel quite spare despite the complex musical dialogues.

The fourth Prélude sang pensively and serenely.  Here Lane conjured the spirit of the Second Piano Concerto, which had received such a successful premiere in 1901, thus removing the cloud of depression which had troubled Rachmaninov since 1897.  Indeed, this Prélude seemed redolent with the composer’s love for his cousin, Natalia Satina, whom he married in May 1902, the ascending melody aspiring towards a radiant upper register.  But, although little tension troubled the contentment, Lane did urge the music forward, emphasising dramatic contrasts and employing astute rubato even while the accompanying arpeggio patterns were even and fluid.  Tranquillity was brusquely swept aside by the pounding rhythms of the G minor march.  In this fifth Prélude, Lane had the physical stamina to sustain the difficult chordal repetitions and also conveyed the yearning quality of the slower middle section.

The Nocturne-like sixth Prélude in Eb was full of joy, but the dynamics were quite restrained, the mood intimate, preventing the expressive melody from becoming too saccharine.  The complex figurations of next three préludes confirmed Lane’s technical prowess: after the tense agitation evoked by the rippling theme of the seventh (C minor), the challenging broken chords of the eighth (Ab) were surprisingly relaxed, while the fiendish passagework of the ninth (Eb) glittered.  In the final Prélude Lane demonstrated his ability to balance a singing tone quality with expressive restraint and subtlety.  The melody expanded beautiful from its initial middle-register compass, seeming to prepare for a more passionate conclusion, before slowly fading into repose – a satisfyingly contented ending to the set.

The Préludes had been preceded, without pause, by the third of Rachmaninov’s Op.16 Moments musicaux (1896) in which the rhythmic flexibility of the alternating triplets and quavers in the melody captured the yearning quality of this miniature.  The dynamics ebbed and flowed expressively, and the intricate passagework was cleanly articulated; the short piece was a perfect ‘drawing of breath’ before the Op.23 set, revealing a composer’s early search for a distinct personal voice which would come to fruition in the later Préludes.

Schubert’s Moments musicaux D.780, composed between 1824 and 1828, do not have the same ‘prefatory’ relationship to the three major piano sonatas of the composer’s last year.  But, the sixth piece (1824) is full of the characteristic and idiosyncratic harmonic surprises which confound the listener’s expectations in the A major D.959 sonata, as well as sharing the later work’s contrasting moods and tonalities, warmth giving way to wistfulness.  Lane’s intense concentration and attention to detail were again apparent here and it was a pity that the subtleties of his interpretation were at times marred by the outbursts of unrestrained coughing which followed the audience’s return to the Hall after the interval.

The opening of the D.959 Allegro was dignified and stately, though always warm and appealing of tone, and Lane most effectively introduced a note of urgency through the chromatic transition to the second subject.  The latter was beautifully lyrical and unhurried.  Such contrasts provided tension and drama throughout the movement and further demonstrated Lane’s willingness to reconsider and reflect upon the musical material.  I was impressed once again by the clarity of the voicing and the movement built persuasively to a majestic, broad coda.

There was surprisingly tempestuous drama, too, in the ensuing Andantino, which began in dreamy contemplation with a sighing, rocking accompaniment, but later erupted in declamatory outbursts of astonishing violence and unrest.  Thankfully, the waltzing lilt of the scherzo erased the anger of the preceding nightmare.  Here, the clarity of Lane’s shaping of the melodic lines effectively pointed the motivic connections with material heard earlier in the sonata.  The pianist had a very sure grasp of the complex structural relationships within the final movement Rondo, Allegretto, and the long movement, with its contrasting episodes and unexpected harmonic twists, was convincingly presented.  The rondo theme itself had strong character, combining focus with tenderness, and the coda, with its restatement of the sonata’s opening theme was assertive and exciting.

Another miniature concluded the recital.  Lane chose as his single encore Chopin’s Nocturne Op.27 No.2 in D flat, adopting an unusually flowing tempo and racing through the adornments at times, but always playing with thoughtfulness and precision, and closing with gentle repose.  It was further evidence of Lane’s sustained engagement with the musical material, his superb technical control and his ability to communicate eloquently.

Claire Seymour

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