Memorable Schubert and Schumann from Christian Zacharias

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann: Christian Zacharias (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 13.1.13 (GD)

Beethoven:  Piano Sonata No 12 in A flat major, Op.26
Piano Sonata No 10 in G major, Op.14 No.2
Schubert:    6 Moments Musicaux, D780
Schumann:  Kreisleriana Op. 16

Zacharias began and ended his recital with a Beethoven piano sonata. The opening of Op. 26, which is, unusually for Beethoven, a menuet-like andante theme (not dissimilar to some of Mozart’s variations for piano) followed by six variations variously contrasted in mood and dynamics. Zacharias played all this in a rather straightfoward manner. The variations went well, although I would have welcomed more subtle contrasts, especially in Beethoven’s sudden tonal shifts. The following tempestuous Scherzo was again very well articulated but I missed a certain frisson as when played by a pianist like Ronald Brautigam. The famous ‘funeral march’ movement was quite impressive, especially Zacharias’s strong accents in the ascending drum-roll sequences. Although with pianists like Gilels and Annie Fischer the real drama here emerges from within the music, with Zacharias I had more the impression of these striking sequences being imposed from without. The Allegro finale was again well played, making a suitable counter-balance to the preceding ‘funeral march’. I just missed that last ounce of wit within a structure of rhythmic stability.

After the dramatic tones of the preceding ‘Pathetique’ Sonata, Op. 13, the Op. 14, No.2 Sonata is something of a contrast, taking us back to the more gentle inflections of the end of the eighteenth century and composers like Haydn and Mozart. Zacharias managed quite well the undulating, conversational tones of the first movement. Again the second movement Andante is a set of contrasting varations which Zacharias phrased well, but again I missed that extra tonal finesse which elevates the well played to something more exceptional and compelling. The final Scherzo. Allegro assai was well contrasted, but I missed the element of  quite rough, sardonic humour which Beethoven went on to develop to staggering heights in works like the Diabelli Variations.

Zacharias was much more successful in the works by Schubert and Schumann. This was apparent in the opening of the Six moments musicaux with its bright, open C major tone suggesting a soundscape evoking upper Austrian nature scenes and later on strains of Austrian folk themes. Zacharias managed the  contrast between the fragile rocking second moment and the exuberant rhythms of the ‘Air russe’ in F minor with consumate élan and confidence. The fourth moment has the forthright integrity of ‘classical’ form, with even the suggestion of Bachian counterpoint. Here Zacharias’s discreet but most effective pedalling gave this formal sounding music an almost orchestral glow of quasi romantic warmth. Zacharias continued without a break into the arresting moment in F minor, and concluded with a magical rendition of the traditional minuet and trio which concludes this simple sounding but hauntingly beautiful composition.

In the Kreisleriana (inspired by the work of E.T.A Hoffmann) Zacharias found a wonderful organic unity within each of the eight very different sections/movements miraculously intertwining with one another. Although Kreisleriana is described as Phantasien für das Pianoforte Zacharias never lost sight or sound of the quite classical tonal structure around D minor, G minor and B flat. After all Schumann was engaged in a detailed sudy of Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ while composing Kreislerna. Tonight Zacharias’s rendition was full of subtle dynamic/lyrical contrasts and the most beautifully nuanced phrasing – again with discreet but effective pedalling – well capturing the panglossian magic and wonder of this work. It would take a dissertation to register all the wonders of this performance, but special mention must go to the luminosity, richness of tone and contouring of harmonies in the two concluding sections marked ‘Sehr langsam’ (lento assai) sounding both mercurial and arresting in tone, and in the haunting last movement marked ‘Schnell und spielend’ (Vivace e scherzando). Here the off-beat dotted rhythms, particularly those in 6/8 time were enchantingly inflected invoking Schumann’s hint of Hoffmannesque witchcraft in which the tonal realm of the ‘unheimlich’ was never far away.

Zacharias concluded this memorable recital with an encore in the shape of Scarlatti’s Sonata K55, played with all the  elegance and agility associated with this remarkable musician.


Geoff Diggines