Federico Colli: An Exciting Young Pianist Destined for Greatness?

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schubert, Beethoven, Schumnn:  Federico Colli(piano), Dora Stoutker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 29.9.13  (GPu)
Schubert, Impromptu No.1 in F minor (Op.142)
Beethoven, Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, ‘Appassionata’ (Op.57)
Schumann, Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor (Op.11)

Schumann described his first sonata as a “collaborative effort of Florestan and Eusebius”. Though the terminology is, of course,  peculiarly Schumann’s, what he says is perhaps no more than a description of any substantial work of music, any piece of genuine intellectual or emotional complexity. Schumann’s Florestan and Eusebius can be understood in a number of different ways. One that seems especially fruitful is not to see them as symptoms of some kind of psychological disorder, but rather as a quasi-poetic way of characterising the kinds of complementary polarities out of which great art is constructed. Florestan embodies the extrovert, passionate and impulsive feeling and action, boldness and flamboyance; Eusebius, on the other hand, represents the introvert, the meditative and dreamy sensibility, contemplation rather than action, melancholy even, introspection rather then outward flamboyance. Earlier centuries spoke and wrote of the vita activa (the active life) and the vita contemplativa (the contemplative life) and debated their relative importance and value (there is a succinct account of the tradition in an essay by Paul A. Lombardi, ‘Vita Activa versus Vita Contemplativa in Petrarch and Salutati’, Italica, 59:2 (1982), pp.83-92). While an individual may valuably (and as it were healthily) to either way of life, a healthy society needs to find valued places for both. And so does healthy art. One might see Florestan and Eusebius (or the vita activa and the vita contemplativa) as terms in a dialectic (thesis and antithesis) through which one can reach a more inclusive synthesis. In musical terms the necessity of such a synthesis of Florestan and Eusebius applies both to composers and interpreters.

The young Italian pianist Federico Colli (he was born in August 1988) won the Leeds International Piano Competition last year and garnnered fulsome praise in doing so. He surely has a long and successful career ahead of him. He will, one imagines, become a hot property for one or other of the record companies, with his formidable technique, the passion of his playing and his youthful good looks.  (There were enthusiastic whoops of joy from many of the young female students in the audience, some of which, I suspect, were not wholly motivated by musical considerations!). And certainly there was much, in purely musical terms, to enjoy and admire in this striking recital. But he is not yet quite the finished article (nor could he or should he be at 25). Although there was nothing in his playing that was remotely weak or poor, some aspect were, inevitably, stronger than others, at least on this occasion. Crudely one might say that his response to ‘Florestanian’ elements in the music was more compelling and perfectly centred than his response to the contributions of Eusebius (to use Schumann’s terms again).

His reading of the Schubert Impromptu with which he opened his programme was the least satisfactory thing in the recital; the piece didn’t feel fully possessed, and there seemed to be quite a lot of conscious consideration and control going on, as though he hadn’t yet fully ‘internalised’ the piece. The result was a relatively ‘routine’ performance (not an adjective I would otherwise apply to anything in the recital) of a kind of which many lesser pianists would have been capable. The whole didn’t carry real conviction, at least not of the intensity that characterised Colli’s Beethoven and, especially, Schumann. The ruminative themes and the extended pianissimo passages in the Impromptu didn’t grip and hold attention as completely as they can.

There was, however, no risk of any one’s attention wandering in the ensuing performance of the Appassionata. From the opening bars onwards this was a sustainedly expressive performance, technically fleet and muscular, but with no sense that pianistic rhetoric was an end in itself. Colli’s rhetoric was poetic (and thoroughly musical) throughout and in the opening allegro the timing of climaxes and the purposefulness of the dynamic contrasts was profoundly impressive. The more Eusebian andante was just a little less so; although there was some beautiful and sensitive playing and an admirable lucidity, there are emotional depths – a tragic weight – in this movement which Colli didn’t quite plumb or articulate. The third movement, however, was a triumph, a spellbinding reading full of controlled momentum, passion and precision; here, one felt, Colli’s personality was as completely invested in the music as his formidable technique was. The result was glorious.

So, too, in very large part, was Colli’s performance of Schumann’s First Sonata. The lengthy introduction to the first movement (marked ‘un poco adagio’) was played with persuasive lyricism (in what was Colli’s most thoroughly convincing ‘Eusebian’ music-making so far in his recital) and the main part of the movement (allegro vivace) had a driven quality which briefly created the illusion of abandonment and excessive freedom, though it was actually held in check by a clearly articulated sense of the music’s structures; still there was a powerful sense of emotional turbulence here. The beautiful theme of the aria that follows was played with a calm passion more complete than anything achieved earlier in the recital. Liszt wrote of this music that it was “a song of great passion, expressed with fullness and calm” and his words describe, better than any of mine can, the effect of Colli’s playing of this short, but rich movement. His reading of the scherzo which forms the third movement was rich in fantasy and animation, volatile in its transitions between the dignified intermezzo and the richly inventive, even quirky, music which surrounds it, a reading which  convinced one of the larger unity (the synthesis) to which all the sections of this movement belonged. The music’s discontinuities and its inner dialogue between contrasting temperamental dimensions were fully integrated into a coherent vision by Colli. The abrupt transitions of the last movement (allegro un poco maestoso) made the dialogue of Florestan and Eusebius yet more apparent, and Colli’s percussive phrasing and, at times, almost manic energy, juxtaposed with moments of repose (or near repose) established with utter assurance the dialectic at the heart of this music. This was a mature and rewarding performance. As and when Colli gets his recording contract, it is to be hoped that the work of Schumann will soon feature.

Though having a few reservations, as expressed above, I am convinced that Colli is not just an exciting young player, but one maturing into a major pianist. I shall certainly follow his career with interest and high expectations.

Glyn Pursglove