John O’Conor Covers a Lot of Ground from Haydn to Scriabin in Istanbul

TurkeyTurkey Haydn, Wagner – Liszt, Beethoven, Schubert: John O’Conor (piano), Istanbul Recitals at ‘the Seed’, Istanbul 10.05.13 (AM)

Haydn: Piano Sonata in F Major, Hob XVI/23 Liszt: “Isoldens Liebestod: Schlußszene aus Tristan und Isolde”, transcription for piano (after Wagner), S. 447
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 “Pathetique”
Schubert: Piano Sonata in C Minor, D 958

Honestly, I don’t have a clear idea as to what makes a Haydn sonata performance superior or poor. I listen to Hamelin’s recordings in complete awe, and love the way Brendel makes them sound light as a feather, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a Haydn performance where I could put my finger on a specific variable and say “Ah, you see? Now, that’s no good.” So it’s only fitting that tonight’s Haydn’s F Major sonata coming out from someone like John O’Conor, who has a tremendous affection and affinity for the music of Mozart and Beethoven (just watch his Beethoven Camp film if you need proof besides his critically acclaimed Sonatas and Bagatelles sets), was faultless. The fast bravura sections of the first movement met their equal in the performer’s agile fingers. The question/answer episodes had an almost Beethoven-ian dynamic shifts, giving the music some added drama –whether written in the score or not. The Adagio, in the hands of Mr. O’Conor, similarly echoed an auxiliary struggle fitted more to the composer’s pupil than the composer himself. The pianist’s left hand’s poignant arpeggios against defiant right hand trills and forlorn appoggiaturas in particular gave way to a very effective interpretation.

John O’Conor’s journey into the future of the piano sonata genre, first with Beethoven’s Pathetique, and then, the regrettably seldom performed Schubert C Minor were equally impressive. The only objection with regards to the performer’s Beethoven was in the opening of the Sonata: I felt the rising agony and suspense of the Grave was not reflected with sufficient conviction. It wasn’t particularly taken slower or faster than the norm, but it lacked cohesiveness. Still, once the Allegro took over, the rest of the movement as well as a truly singing Adagio cantabile and a vivacious Rondo went without a hitch. In the Schubert Sonata’s opening Allegro, Mr. O’Conor displayed a lot of agitation, coming off a little loud at times, but he quickly toned down during the second subject. The Adagio of the sonata is often likened more to a Beethoven slow movement than a Schubert one. But John O’Conor’s unembellished triplets were as Schubert as music gets. The fourth movement which carries most of the weight of the sonata was played with rhythmic galloping perfection, particularly in Schubert’s repeated notes driving the music forward at all times.

The regular program chosen with regards to the pianist’s strengths was victorious, but it was perhaps what came in the encores that delighted the most. First, we were treated to a Chopin nocturne –something I would never imagine hearing from John O’Conor. He played the famous Op. 9 No. 2 nocturne playfully and with a certitude that was pleasantly surprising. And for the second encore, another nocturne Op. 9 No. 2: this time Scriabin’s peerless Nocturne for the Left Hand. Modeled after Chopin’s late works in the same genre, it is a thoroughly difficult piece to play –especially after a taxing recital as this evening’s. Mr. O’Conor did show some signs of fatigue in the faster figurations, but he gave us a deeply romantic reading.

Alain Matalon