A Superb Liszt Recital from Nelson Goerner

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Liszt: Nelson Goerner (Piano) Wigmore Hall, London 27 September 2011 (RB)

Ballade No. 2 in B minor S171
Quatre Valses Oubliées (Nos. 1 and 2) S215
Bagatelle sans Tonalité S216a
Mephisto Waltz No. 1 in A S514
Piano Sonata in B minor S178

Nelson Goerner won first prize at the International Piano Competition in Geneva, and has performed a number of works for two pianos with no less a pianist than Martha Argerich.  He is a fine exponent of Liszt and has released CDs of the Transcendental Studies and B minor sonata.  This recital, celebrating the Liszt bi-centenary, consisted of the currently ubiquitous B minor Ballade, two of the ‘forgotten waltzes’, two waltzes based on Lenau’s interpretation of the Faust legend and the great B minor sonata.

The opening B minor Ballade is a large-scale work and opens with an undulating chromatic scale in the left hand.  The dynamics, shading and textures were all perfectly graded and well judged.  Goerner evoked some translucent and exquisitely beautiful tones in the subsequent lyrical section and played the virtuoso passage work with panache.  He kept a tight grip on what can sometimes come across as a flabby and unstructured piece, conjuring some wonderful colours from the keyboard and maintaining a convincing narrative.

The two ‘Valses Oubliées’ are late pieces, from the 1880s, and they provided Liszt with an opportunity to experiment with harmony and tonality.  Goerner began the first of the waltzes in a light and impish way and he conveyed the sense of dislocation and alienation which is so intrinsic to this piece.  There were some lovely warm tone colours in the amorous central episodes.  I felt he could have used a little less pedal in the opening section to bring out the line and staccato phrasing more.  Goerner displayed rhythmic subtlety and extraordinary digital dexterity in the second of the ‘Valses Oubliées’.  The first section had a will-o’-the-wisp quality while the appealing central episodes had real charm and vitality.

The ‘Bagatelle sans Tonalité’ was the first of the pieces in the recital based on Lenau’s poem of the Faust legend.  It was composed in 1885 (the year before Liszt’s death) and it is an extraordinary piece which takes chromaticism and conventional harmonies to their limit, and foreshadows the music of Debussy and Bartok.  Goerner injected a surreal dancing quality into the music and the conclusion seemed to drift off into nothingness.  The first half concluded with the first Mephisto waltz which is one of Liszt’s great barnstorming show pieces.  It is the first of the piano pieces based on Lenau’s poem and it depicts the scene where Mephistopheles whips everyone into a frenzy at the local inn by playing on his violin, and Faust leads one of the girls out into a wood echoing the sound of nightingales.  Goerner generated terrific excitement in the virtuoso opening section.  I felt the ‘expresso amoroso’ lyrical section could have been more nuanced and seductive, although again Goerner coaxed some beautiful sounds and tone colours from the piano.  The finale to the waltz was a virtuoso tour de force with Goerner tossing off the octaves, arpeggios, demonic trills and cadenzas with aplomb.

The second half of the concert consisted of one work – Liszt’s great B minor sonata.  Goerner injected real menace into the opening of the piece.   He was fully on top of the keyboard gymnastics in the ‘allegro energico’ section while at the same time alert to the complex motivic and thematic relationships within the piece.  The bravura double octave section was played with energy and power while the whirlwind pyrotechnics prior to the slow section were a mixture of explosive power and caprice.  Goerner played the ‘andante sostenuto’ section a little faster than I was expecting but in so doing he maintained the expressive flow of the work and gave a real sense of coherence to the unfolding thematic material.  The fugue which opens the final section was clear and crisply articulated and the explosive octaves at the end were reminiscent of Goerner’s fellow Argentinean, Martha Argerich.  Goerner was hugely expressive in the final ‘lento assai’ capturing perfectly the final sense of mysticism and evanescence.

The audience were very appreciative with some giving Goerner a standing ovation.  They were rewarded with three encores:  Chopin’s nocturne in D flat and prelude in D minor, and the slow movement of Schubert’s sonata in A.  Goerner maintained his very high standards and quality of playing right to the end.  Overall, this was a hugely impressive piece of piano playing.

Robert Beattie