Karim Said: Bracing and Stimulating in Twentieth Century Piano Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schoenberg, Webern, Gerhard, Cage, Wolpe, Boulez: Karim Said (piano). Purcell Room, London, 9.6.2013 (MB)

Schoenberg:  Piano Pieces, op.33a and op.33b
Webern: Variations, op.27
Gerhard: Three Impromptus, op.8
Cage: The Perilous Night
Wolpe: Three Pieces for Youngsters
Boulez: Notations

This third and final recital in Karim Said’s Purcell Room series, part of the broader Southbank Centre festival, ‘The Rest is Noise’, made me wish I had been able to attend the previous instalments. Each recital had centred around Schoenberg’s piano music; this mostly looked forward. That Said had given due thought to the works concerned was clear from the introductory discussion with Sara Mohr-Pietsch: a welcome change from the dreadful platitudes such introductions often bring. The proof of the aural pudding was in the listening, though, and it was very good indeed.

I do not think I have heard either of the Schoenberg op.33 Pieces in recital before (save, years ago, when I played them myself, which does not really count). Said immediately revealed a fine ear for sonority, making excellent use of his Steinway, and line, including rhythm: a parameter which one still hears the ignorant deride in music of the Second Viennese School. Ghosts of Vienna danced – and remembered. The very different characters of the two pieces was evident, and yet, the second was certainly in context made to follow on from the first, Schoenberg’s writing seeming poised between the expressionism of the op.11 Pieces and the somewhat more neo-Classical world of the Piano Concerto.

Webern’s Variations brought a more analytical, though certainly not dry, approach. My sole reservation would be that the work perhaps opened a little stiffly, but if that were the case this remained an accomplished, indeed beautiful performance. There was certainly joy in the pianism of the second variation. Real sense was made of dynamic contrasts as well as the phrasing: all those sighs! Said, we had learned earlier, had studied a score with performing instructions by the composer – presumably, though he did not say, those given to Peter Stadlen. The experience seemed to have offered him the opportunity to penetrate deep beneath the surface in a highly committed performance.

Roberto Gerhard’s 1950 Impomptus offered, both in work and performance, an intriguing and convincing injection of Iberian rhythms in their encounter between Schoenbergian and post-Granados soundworlds. (Gerhard studied with both Schoenberg and Granados.) Said proved an excellent advocate, playing the pieces as if they were repertoire works, Debussy also more than once coming to mind in passages of intensity and languor. Above all, however, there was life: this was music as colourful as anything in, say, Images. Moreover, one could undoubtedly hear the composer’s twelve-note workings, testimony to the pianist’s understanding and communication.

For John Cage’s The Perilous Night (1944), the piano was transformed into an Eastern percussion ensemble, the composer having employed the prepared instrument in his work as dance accompanist at the Cornish School. To my ears, rhythm rather than pitch ruled, although the latter was not entirely irrelevant. Whether the very business of preparing the piano was intended as performance, it certainly came across as such. Intriguingly, a degree of rhythmic kinship emerged with Boulez’s Notations, be it by ‘chance’ or otherwise, though the latter pieces are of course far more varied, Cage being both less terse and more repetitive.

The harmony of Stefan Wolpe’s Three Pieces for Youngsters imparted a sense of returning home after Cage’s experimentalism. (For whatever one might go to Cage, it is certainly not harmony.) Wolpe’s chiselled miniatures were not entirely unlike Webern’s own Kinderstück, op. posth., though more reflective and without its almost Scarlatti-like hypertension. There were hints of Berg, too, not least in the harmony of the third. Teachers really ought to offer these pieces to children – and adults should relish them on their own accord. Or rather, that might happen, if only someone would publish them.

Finally, Boulez’s Notations. Said displayed clarity and purpose in his delineation of their character and expressive power. The second offered éclats in abundance, whilst Debussyan languor – insofar as that be possible in pieces of twelve-bar duration! – could be heard in its successor. Boulez’s suggestion of improvisation – ‘Doux et improvisé’ – was communicated in the fifth, though rigour, never didactic but rather enabling, was always the order of the day. The suggestion of bass drum in the left hand of the ninth, apparently communicated personally by the composer to Said, came across highly convincingly, putting me in mind of Schoenberg’s op.19 no.6 (cleverly chosen by Said as an encore). ‘Mécanique et très sec,’ is Boulez’s marking for the tenth, and that is how it sounded, offering the strongest of contrasts. Quiet scintillation characterised the eleventh, before the return of Messiaenesque tendencies, already announced in the ‘hieratic’ seventh, in the imaginary (secret?) theatre of Boulez’s final Notation. I very much hope that Said will go on to essay Boulez’s other works for piano, the 2005 une page d’éphémeride included.

Mark Berry