Paolo Restani Plays the Gentler Sides of Rachmaninov, Liszt and Brahms

TurkeyTurkey  Rachmaninov, Liszt, Brahms:  Paolo Restani (piano), Istanbul Recitals at ‘the Seed’, Istanbul 04.10.12 (AM)

Rachmaninov:  Four Preludes (Op. 32, Nos. 10 in B minor, 12 in G-sharp minor, 5 in G major, 6 in F minor)
Liszt: Transcendental Etude No. 9 (Ricordanze) in A-flat major, S. 139;
Rhapsodie Espagnol, S. 254
Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Schumann in F sharp minor, Op. 9;
Variations on a Theme by Paganini in A Minor, Op. 35, Book II.

It feels like yesterday that I missed Paolo Restani’s recital two years ago when he had  presented an all-Liszt program that was later hailed as ‘majestic’ and ‘powerful,’ among other Liszt-ian adjectives. Unfortunately, “History does not repeat itself,” as Mark Twain aptly put, “but it does rhyme.”  Istanbul’s traffic is every bit unpredictable as Mahler’s music: it can come to a halt in the middle of an easily running sequence and keep you there, transfixed. I write all this in order to ease myself into saying that said traffic, on this occasion, caused me to miss the entire first half of the recital. Still, I was sufficiently impressed with Mr. Restani’s Brahms that it warrants an article.

Istanbul Recitals, now in its sixth season, has been getting better with every passing year, not only in the performers it presents, but also in its organization and the overall experience it conveys. In the process, the organizers have gradually upgraded to better concert halls, and the series now resides at The Seed, a small but sonically superb auditorium on the banks of Bosporus, where Istanbul Recitals seems to have found both its permanent home and its targeted audience. Having arrived late, I actually appreciated that we were prohibited from standing in the foyer, and had to wait downstairs so there would be no noise to disturb those already seated.

Despite missing the Rachmaninov and the Liszt, I sense Paolo Restani’s choice of works in the first half signaled a preference for the more intimate side of the evening’s composers. When it was finally time to hear him in Brahms’s Schumann variations ( As he later told me, “So seldom played, which is a shame because it is such a beautiful and intimate work.”), I was under the false impression that we were to witness some fireworks—certainly later in the Paganini variations. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Though Paolo Restani has a big and formidable presence on stage, and carries an almost aristocratic air around him in his movements, his understated hand and finger gestures reminded me of pianists from a time bygone.  His treatment of Brahms was unhurried and pensive–even dreamy. Contrapuntal elements were not particularly highlighted, and overall, there was just enough shade of Schumann in his approach.

Brahms never wrote a successful set of etudes, but his Paganini Variations may very well be regarded as the closest he got. The work, the second set in particular which Mr. Restani chose to play, does not offer much in the way of finger exercises. Instead the music has more to do with addressing particular challenges. Mr. Restani’s accurate octaves and chord arpeggios against multiple time in the first two variations showed his technical brilliance, as the third variation’s elegant dance showed his rhythmic sensibility. As the piece gathers steam midway into its duration, the pianist kept it all under control without letting out even a tiny bit of hesitation. He refrained from going to extreme dynamics, and gave us a coherent whole—not excitable, but very Brahmsian, just as the composer himself might have envisioned.


Alain Matalon