Electrifying Michael Endres Wows Whangarei, New Zealand

New ZealandNew Zealand Schubert, Gareth Farr, Schumann, Godowsky:  Michael Endres (piano), Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, Forum North, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 30.10.2011 (Pse)

The German pianist Michael Endres, who has recently become a NZ resident, wouldn’t look out of place working in, say, a library. This somewhat stereotypical visual impression is borne out by his reputation as a recording artist: a player who is elegant, refined – and conservative of expression.

I was surprised to learn that as a “live” performer he has not just a different, but a drastically different, reputation. Apparently, off come the kid gloves and on go the gauntlets of a risk-taking high adventurer. You could say, therefore, that he’s a performing equivalent of Schumann’s “Florestan and Eusebius”. Well, so we are told.

However, never having experienced him performing in the flesh, I for one regarded such a dramatic divergence with some degree of scepticism. Nevertheless, stirred by the pithy enthusiasm (“He’s brilliant!”) of Whangarei Music Society chairman Lois Williams, I couldn’t help but welcome this opportunity to prove the pudding.

Nor did Endres waste any time in proving it. Not many bars into Schubert’s A major Sonata (D959), he had already demonstrated a remarkably formidable pianistic armoury. To take but the most obvious example, at one extreme his fingers assaulted the keyboard like jackhammers; at the other they caressed the keys with infinite intimacy.

There’s nothing remarkable about that – until I realised that this and its executive precision are apparently independent of how fast his fingers move, or whether they’re playing lines or chords, or even which hand they’re on.

Yet this and all his other technical facilities – in particular, a rubato that puts knicker-elastic to shame – would go for naught if even mildly misapplied. However, Endres’s biggest “gun” is his deeply comprehending and commanding brain, which penetrates the heart of the music and propels it unerringly through his fingertips.

Even in a world that’s now well aware how much more there is to Schubert than mere “milk-sop”, the electrifying Endres raises eyebrows. Without sacrificing one iota of Schubert’s own essentially lyrical character, Endres elicited the kind of red-raw emotional dynamics that we generally regard as Beethoven’s business.

This was especially true of his interpretation of the middle movement – the music set off, not just funereally solemn as befits an “essentially lyrical” composer, but limping and thoroughly bone-weary, and eventually erupting into terrifying, chaotic nightmare. This raised an obvious question: is this music generally underplayed, or is Endres overplaying it? I’ve a feeling that, having heard Endres, anyone with an inkling of what Schubert suffered in his tragically short lifetime will most likely plump for the former.

His take on Schumann’s much-loved, and rather more extrovert Carnaval, op. 9 was no less nerve-tingling, a cavalcade of supremely vivid characterisation. Again, the accent was on pushing the extremes further apart. However, there was more to it than just making the loud louder, the fast faster, et cetera and vice versa; Endres applied his technical facilities to filling the wider range with a continuum of expression.

To complete his programme plan, Endres appended a complementary piece to each of the aforementioned main works. Although hugely entertaining, these were, for different reasons, much less revelatory. Following the Schumann, Godowsky’s spectacular Concert Paraphrase on “Wine, Women and Song”, being the one piece in the recital written specifically as a virtuoso showpiece, was simply a case of “what you see is what you get”; it contained nothing that hadn’t been revealed before.

After the Schubert came something far more fascinating. Other than utilising a theme already familiar from Britten’s use of it in his ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, Kiwi composer Gareth Farr’s exploration of the common ground between Baroque toccata and Balinese gamelan was totally new to me. Hence, having no benchmark for comparison, the performance revealed nothing, whereas purely as music it was entirely revelatory!

Regardless of that, I got the impression that this performance of Sepulah Jari (1996) was as good as it gets. Michael Endres took it by the throat, his playing by turns mysteriously atmospheric, barnstorming in its climaxes, and singularly scintillating in its dizzy depictions of the multiplicative layers of the gamelan.

If I had one slight reservation, it would have to be that this wall-to-wall, high-octane music-making tended to become a little relentless, though I doubt that my opinion would be shared by anyone accustomed to rock concerts! Perhaps the programme should actually have been a bit longer, with an utterly relaxed, even serene oasis separating the members of each pair of main works.

If this thought hadn’t crossed Endres’s mind, then his encore was a remarkably pertinent coincidence. For, emulating Thomas Beecham, as a parting gift he offered us a soothing “lollipop” – gently cooling our fevered brows with a blissfully laid-back rendition of the wistful Traümerei from Schumann’s Kinderszenen.

Paul Serotsky