Pontino Festival 2011 (3) – The moment it sounds boring it’s wrong

Elissò Virsaladze’s 2011 Masterclass Pontino Festival (3) (JB)

Sermoneta (Latina), 17 Luglio 2001. Panorama della cittadina con il Castello Caetani. Foto di Enrico Para. Copyright 2001.

Stop! If you play like this it sounds boring. The moment anything sounds boring it’s wrong. Elissò Virsaladze is instructing the youngest participant in her masterclass of this year, seventeen-year-old Joao Xavier from Portugal. His thin face flushes slightly red. He is playing the Mendelssohn ‘Variations Sérieuses’. I feel for him. I tried to play this piece at about his age. I was nowhere near as good as he. And I’ve heard some very great pianists “sound boring” with this piece. Should Virsaladze be protesting to Mendelssohn?

This is the first time I am hearing Joao play. I was sitting next to him at lunch the day before and found him a very bright conversationalist whichever way the conversation turned. One thing for sure he is going to remember forever is Madame’s truism: The moment anything sounds boring it’s wrong. If his ego has taken a slight set-back, it’s a small price paid to have grasped that truth for the rest of your life.

Joao Xavier gets the Buckley vote for the most promising pianist in the class this year. I wouldn’t offer him a concert. Not yet. But there is evidence that he has all the makings of a fine pianist. His intelligence shines through his well-prepared fingers. To be sure, his fingers sometimes carry him away. So much so, it can cause his quick intelligence to temporarily desert him. The Victorians would have told him that playing with yourself is a dangerous business. My guess would be that he already knows this. And I wouldn’t want to root out the playfulness in any case. Not all of it, anyway.

Philipp Richardsen, Austrian and speaking the most perfect English ever heard, must be more than double Xavier’s age. Philipp is already in full career and in charge of a Music Department at a South Korean University. He is in his sixth year of this course and his gentlemanly presence is much appreciated by all in Sermoneta. His ambition is to improve his piano playing. He has grasped another cruel and necessary truth of instrumental performance: either you improve or you die; there is no standing still.

Those who pass the entrance audition usually choose their own piece for study. They may count on three one-hour lessons in the course of a week. Philipp has brought the little-known Czerny Variations, Op. 33, on a Theme of Rode, La Ricordanza. Sorry, Philipp, but this piece is dull, dull, dull. You play it beautifully, with every phrase elegantly turned and an articulation which never falters for a single note (Madame’s own great strength, this last quality.) When I voiced my opinion on this composition the young pianists all chorused, But Horowitz used to play it. And as everyone knows, Horowitz is never ever dull. If Philipp’s objective was to sound like Horowitz, it has to be said that he failed. To sound like Horowitz you have to be Horowitz. I am pretty sure that Philipp doesn’t need me to tell him this.

Emanuel Rimoldi is in his third year in Sermoneta and has just finished the second of a five-year course at the Moscow Conservatory with Madame Virsaladze. Emanuel gets my vote as the most thoughtful pianist of the year: while other young pianists may work on their communication through flashy virtuosity, Emanuel proceeds by seduction. It would be hard to find another young pianist who so manages to draw his audience in to what he is playing.

At the end-of-course recital, his Haydn e-minor sonata was breathtakingly elegant. He has worked out a pianism which, while being beautifully well-turned and tidy, also manages to sound spontaneous.

But the Chopin Barcarolle Op. 60 is perhaps even better suited to his temperament. This is a very difficult piece to bring off. He pulled out his marvellous trick of manoeuvring the audience’s very breathing. He is a pianist who more than others needs an audience’s response. They were with him all the way. That kind of refinement brings Cortot to mind. You get an additional measure of poetry with Emanuel Rimoldi’s pianism.

The Buckley first place for profound musicianship goes to the twenty-one year old Brazilian pianist Pablo Rossi, who is about to embark on his final (fifth) year of the Moscow Virsaladze course. I have been following Pablo Rossi’s development for a number of years and am struck by the individual sounds of his own which he draws out from his instrument. At the end-of-course recital, he gave us Chopin’s Three Posthumous Studies and Fourth Scherzo. His playing has gained a new and welcome authority since I last heard him and never fails to impress by its unique musical involvement.

Jack Buckley