Beethoven and Liszt: a Curate’s Egg.

IndiaIndia Beethoven, Liszt: Maciej Pikulski (piano), Experimental Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, 1.8.2012 (JSM)

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 “Pathétique”
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
Liszt: Totentanz (version for piano-solo)
Miserere”: Concert Paraphrase after “Il Trovatore” by Verdi
Concert Paraphrase on themes from “Rigoletto” by Verdi


Photo (c) NCPA

The pianist Maciej Pikulski is well-known to Mumbai audiences, having given several concerts here as soloist and accompanist. He returned to the National Centre for the Performing Arts for a set of two performances, one featuring the piano music of Beethoven and Liszt.

Beethoven was first to grace the keyboard, with the “Pathétique” sonata. Pikulski’s opening set the tone for his performance, lyrical and legato. With much use of the pedal, the opening’s questioning phrases and agogic pauses lost most of their drama; and the ensuing Allegro, though initially precise, soon gave way to a kind of homogenous anonymity with occasional smudged runs and wrong notes. There was hardly any sense of Beethovenian Sturm und Drang.

The following Adagio Cantabile fared much better. After a somewhat meandering opening, Pikulski showed himself possessed of a fine lyrical sensibility that he used to milk the movement of every ounce of poetry. The Rondo finale followed almost without pause; and here the pianist really came into his own from the very first notes, giving an elegant, assured performance.

The recital continued in Beethoven’s “C minor mood” with his last sonata, the Opus 111. Here again, Pikulski fell short of drama, the first movement’s Maestoso opening almost perfunctory; the Allegro con brio seemingly oblivious of Beethoven’s appassionato marking, conveying clarity rather than conflict.

This two-part sonata represents diametric opposites of “unmatched drama and transcendence” (Robert Taub) and, on a more philosophical note, “Samsara and Nirwana” (Hans Von Bülow). Though this performance was shy of the former, the latter was evident in all its purity, right from the wonderfully hushed opening of the second and final movement titled Arietta.

Here, Pikulski’s Chopinesque playing served well. Although the music’s jazz-like inflections could have been better pointed, the faery dances had a pearly translucence. His extended trills, however, were not always well-sustained, though the final one rose to a fine climax followed by an appropriately pensive epilogue.

The programme’s second half was, on the whole, another kettle of fish. It was clear from the outset that Liszt, rather than Beethoven, was Mr. Pikulski’s true métier.

The fiendishly difficult piano-solo version of “Totentanz” was given a stunning performance. The opening’s titanic pounding chords were followed by playing of unabashed virtuosity; and any fear that the performance would degenerate into loud vulgarity was dispelled by passages of meltingly beautiful lyricism.

Similarly, “Miserere”, the concert paraphrase after Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, was accorded a vivid rendition, making palpable the emotional mise-en-scène in Act 4 Scene 1 of the opera. Starting with the deep funeral bells of the monks’ “Miserere” chorus, a poignant contrast was established in Manrico’s farewell to Leonora; and Liszt’s dark chromatic runs embellishing her tortured cries were highlighted with hair-raising acuity.

Another Verdi concert paraphrase,“on themes from Rigoletto” ended the scheduled programme. Like the preceeding “Miserere”, this is a re-working of a single scene of the opera, the quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore” from Act 3….but, coming after the former, it was somewhat anti-climactic. The nervousness of its introduction could have been better delineated; and the main theme was lacking its undercurrent of shameless sexuality. Even so, there were some beautifully-filigreed runs; and the piece ended with an impressive series of cascading chords.

The encores came as a surprise. Mr. Pikulski invited to the platform his collaborator for the next evening, the baritone Laurent Naouri. Having been in the audience through the concert, Mr. Naouri admitted he would be singing cold: under the circumstances, he would have been wiser not to attempt Ich grolle Nicht from Schumann’s “Dichterliebe”, which stretched him to the limit. The second encore was the Drinking Song from Ravel’s song-cycle “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée” and was decently dispatched.

It was only while leaving the concert-hall did this reviewer notice the marque of the piano being used: a Yamaha. Considering the weight and stature of the music being performed, why couldn’t the NCPA provide its Steinway??

Jiten S. Merchant