David Fray’s piano recital offers a mixed experience

Mozart and Beethoven: David Fray (piano). Wigmore Hall, London. 20.7.2011 (MB)

Mozart – Piano Sonata no.9 in D major, KV 311/284c

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.15 in D major, op.28, ‘Pastoral’

Mozart – Fantasia in C minor, KV 475

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.15 in C major, op.53, ‘Waldstein’

More than two years have passed since I enthused about a Wigmore Hall recital given by David Fray. Whether the earlier programme suited him better – I suspect that may have been a good part of the story – or something else has happened, the pianist’s Gould-like platform mannerisms certainly having become far more pronounced, I was only intermittently impressed on this occasion. The Mozart C minor Fantasia and much of Beethoven’s Pastoral Sonata offered much to enjoy, but the first and last works proved less successful. I could not help but wonder, as was eventually suggested by Fray’s choice of a piece by Bach as an encore, whether he – and I – would have been happier with Bach than with Mozart and Beethoven.

That Fray treated Mozart’s D major Sonata, KV 311/284c seriously is to be commended; however, in his apparent determination to portray it is as prefiguring Beethoven, we lost a great deal of what makes it Mozart. Fray’s refusal to treat the modern piano with kid gloves was to be commended, especially during the first movement’s development section and the slow movement, but a greater array of dynamic contrast, would have been welcome: Pierre Monteux’s remark about ‘the indifference of mezzo forte‘ sprang to mind. The finale flowed but was somewhat heavy-handed. Ultimately, it remained earthbound, lacking in Mozartian sparkle and magic. Mozart may, as HC Robbins Landon noted, surprise us with the expected (as opposed to Haydn surprising us with the unexpected), but here he did not surprise us at all.

Beethoven’s D major Sonata, op.28, fared better. The opening movement benefited from a fine, underpinning rhythmic command. Again, Fray’s disinclination to rush reaped rewards, heightening Beethoven’s insistence upon the pitch of D. Schubertian premonitions in the Andante were welcome, especially during those telling instances of left-hand ‘commentary’. The scherzo, however, remained as earthbound as the finale of the Mozart sonata. Again, during the finale, Beethoven’s insistence upon the pitch and tonal centre of D shone through; one could trace them and their shadow throughout the movement. There was, moreover, some beautiful pianissimo playing, and the build up therefrom proved equally impressive.

The highlight of the programme was undoubtedly Mozart’s great C minor Fantasia. Fray’s dynamic shading was infinitely more subtle and considerably more extended than it had been during the earlier Mozart piece. There was a fine sense of line, and palpable relish (Bachian?) to the exploration of Mozart’s chromaticism. The fast sections were taken at considerable speed, but without rushing. Both the contrasts and the essential binding together of the composer’s fantasy form were well handled, Fray imparting a true sense of inevitability to those twists and turns which are utterly unpredictable – unless one should know them. And yes, the end brought the necessary tragic pay off. What Gluck needs words for, Mozart can accomplish with notes alone – and even better.

It was then, a disappointment, to turn to so prosaic, uninvolving a performance of the Waldstein Sonata. The first movement was probably taken too fast: at any rate, it sounded too fast, much of Beethoven’s music merely skated over. There was also a great deal of distracting noise from within the piano. The development – and I apologise for sounding like a weather report – was muddy at times, whilst the lead in to the recapitulation curiously halted just at the moment of return. The Introduzione was very odd indeed. Line was obstinately absent, the movement seemingly assembled note by note, quite lacking in mystery. Whilst the very opening of the finale sounded magical, Fray’s touch apparently melting the keys, there would not be much else to applaud. Fortissimo outbursts may have been impressive in themselves, but they sounded disconnected from Beethoven’s argument. The overall impression was wearisome, unrelenting. Though the coda was taken at high speed, it still often sounded heavy-handed and workmanlike.

Mark Berry