A Critical Confession: A Young Moldovan in the Pianistic Jungle in Rome

ItalyItaly Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev, Constantinov, Liszt: Serghei Constantinov (piano), Teatro Ghione, Rome, 27.11.2011 (JB)

Bach: English suite in F, BWV 809
Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K511
Prokofiev: Toccata in D minor, Op. 11
Constantinov: From the Signs of the Zodiac
Liszt: Sonata in B minor, S178

This is a criticism I had no intention of writing. So why is it here? It is here for the same reason as every other one of my pieces – in the hope that by articulating my responses, I may better understand my own understanding of music. Intention has nothing to do with it. Until I have fathomed my responses and clearly set them out, I cannot sleep easily at night.

I have long known that all criticism is self-criticism. That is to say that it is liable to tell you more about the critic than what is supposedly being criticised. The trick is to catch yourself out in the act. To meet that dark stranger in the musical jungle which is yourself. Both Pogorelich and Dudamel recently got swept aside as I was attempting to clear a path through the forest. And I thought I had immense respect for the (music) environment! I realise this is beginning to sound insufferably egocentric. Please forgive me if you must. But keep in mind that I have a secret (and sometimes not so secret) yearning for partisanship too.

The Keyboard Charitable Trust is a world-wide foundation based on London with the objective of promoting outstanding young players of keyboard instruments. It is the brainchild of Noretta Conci-Leech and her husband, John Leech, with such luminaries as Claudio Abbado and Alfred Brendel among their trustees. Noretta is a pianist herself and we frequently pass information to one another about possible stars on the horizon of the pianistic firmament. I feel something like an accomplice in this plot.

In Spring of this year, Noretta served on the jury of the Poulenc Competition in France, where she heard a talented twenty-year-old pianist from Moldavia, who is studying in Moscow. She immediately arranged a recital for him in London, which was rather well received in some critical circles. She also made a CD and distributed this to her friends whose judgement she valued. I was among them.

I have to say that I was less than enthusiastic. There was a wonderful pianistic facility, but so there is with almost all Russian-trained pianists. Whoever had taught him had done an excellent job. But what came across to me was the superb training rather than the actual playing. To my ear, there was an audible gap between the training and the playing. As they say as the London tube pulls into the stations, mind the gap. It was laudably clear what excellence had been put into the boy. What was much less clear was what was coming out of him. Naturally, this observation disturbed me. But Noretta is used to my brutal directness and so I communicated my views.

Having now heard him live in Rome last night, I have to report that I have modified these views. Real music was coming out of him, music I couldn’t hear on the CD. The recording sounded somewhat mechanical, but the live performance revealed genuine, remarkable musicianship.

He is not one of those Bach pianists who wants to explore all the colours of the modern Steinway in his performance. He errs towards the other extreme of playing the piano as though it were a harpsichord. Following Glenn Gould, this is a deeply unfashionable approach to Bach. However, it does have the advantage of illuminating the genius of Bach’s counterpoint and the cleanness of the frequently contrasting lines. Moreover, there was sincerity in the delivery. The boy was convincing me with his musical personality. Not of a teaching method. It would, I think, be even better if he could be more generous with his personality. His independence of fingers is enviable. Better again too, if he could play more freely with this. The surety of technical prowess is there but the surety of its free expression is still under threat.

There were some beautiful tapering of phrase ends in the Mozart A minor Rondo, recalling the grace of Clara Haskil’s Mozart touch. What a pleasure that he let us in on his love for this music. That is a real communication skill.

Constantinov also played one of his own compositions, based on six signs of the zodiac, as he also studies composition. The musical content of the pieces was slight, but they contained some pleasing pianism. At the interval, a friend told me that he is a master improviser, too. Now that is something I would have much liked to hear. What about it Serghei? We in the audience call out a theme and you improvise on it for ten minutes. No way could you be shy about your musical personality in this context. If this sounds outrageous, just remember that Liszt used to do it.

And speaking of Liszt, his performance of the Sonata sounded as though someone had told him how to play it. O dear!

Jack Buckley