De la Salle Illuminates Brahms and Ravel

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Ravel:  Lise de la Salle, (piano), LSO St Luke’s, London, 2.10.2014 (GD)

Brahms:Andante ma moderato (Theme and variations) from String Sextet No 1 Op, 18 Piano transcription by Brahms
Two Rhapsodies Op.79
No. 1 Rhapsody in B minor
No.2 Rhapsody in G minor
Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit



Brahms is often caricatured as a quintessentially serious German composer. Later photographs of him with that big craggy beard and stern countenance seem to confirm this impression. One would not readily associate Brahms and his music with French culture, certainly not historically with the disastrous defeat of France in 1871 and the Franco-Prussian war; not to mention the later Nazi defeat and occupation of France in 1940. More recently it is interesting to note that Brahms’ music has been used in quite a few French films; I am thinking Jacques Audiard’s ‘The Beat that my Heart skipped’, where the second Rhapsody in G minor is not only deployed extensively, but increasingly becomes part of the films narrative drama. And then there is the classic set of six films (‘Six moral tales’) by director Eric Röhmer, where the initial theme of the Andante ma moderato from String Sextet No.1, Op 18, is used as the main title track in its original string sextet arrangement. And it is often said that France itself can be defined by its cinema.

French pianist Lise de la Salle, who is developing an international career, is known for her elegance and finesse, especially in the performances of Mozart piano concerti in which I have heard her play. Brahms retained a special fondness for this sextet movement with its luminous  minor key boldness and rich harmonies. He presented the movement as a piano transcription to Clara Schumann on her 41 st  birthday in 1860.  So how did the young French pianist approach this rather daunting very German piece? Well, she certainly played with clarity and elegance  but this was no ‘light’ affair. She played with great power and a quite incredible dynamic range with  most economical pedalling.  Here Brahms works up (as it were) from the prevailing bass theme. This allows for the formation of completely new melody designs over a by and large unmodified harmonic metrical foundation thus corresponding to Brahms’s variation ideal. All this was initiated by the exposition of the main theme whose rich harmonies are intertwined with various clusters of mirroring counterpoint mostly in various minor key registers , all superbly contoured by la Salle. This was certainly not a competent  run-through; the music flowed as if it were part of a wider organic structure. The performance had a wonderful continuity, with the six variations sounding individual but also inextricably linked, again organically, so to speak. But special mention must go to Variation. 3 with its numerous scale passages for the left hand, which support the syncopated chordal right-hand melody. Apart from having a wonderful sense of contrast with the other variations it all came splendidly to life in a way  I have rarely experienced in the concert hall.

I had the impression that la Salle was on a kind of musical voyage of discovery and this exploration of keyboard textures and subtleties of expression was carried over into the op.79 Two Rhapsodies. She wonderfully consolidated the strange and beautiful sense of contrast in the B major middle section of the first B minor Rhapsody, based as it is on a gentle berceuse-like ‘expressivo’ melody. And overall she gave  vibrant expression to the whole constellation of moods, contasts, tonalties, dynamics, melodies of this tautly constructed masterpiece.   The second Rhapsody in G minor was again both beautifully sustained and  flexible, especially in the haunting development section, where Brahms creates a vivid sense of the return of the second subject quasi funeral march. But now, towards the extended coda a hypnotic, fatefully muttering pedal on the dominant derived from a triplet figure in the second subject. Again la Salle illuminated all the contrasting moods created here, especially in the way in which she articulated the triplet figure transmogrified into a fragmented shadow of the funeral march theme which itself undergoes a gradual, mutated liquidation, full of mysterious tragedy. The only other performance of Op. 79 No.2 I have heard  which conveys a similar sense of presence , even risk,  is in the old Schnabel  1947 recording. But of course the recording  is opaque and congested. In contrast, the wonderfully ambient, and warm acoustic of St Lukes, made audible every compelling detail.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit is one of the most difficult pieces in the twentieth-century piano repertoire to  bring  off with its magical effects of shade and light and also its element of what Walter Benjamin would have termed ‘profane illumination’. It is not enough for the pianist to be a mere virtuoso; he or she must be in total empathy with the mood (or soundscape) of each of the three ‘characterisations’, all from the fantastical poetry of Louis Bertrand, who was a kind of Gallic version of ETA Hoffmann. His literature is imbued with visions, emanations of ‘scary’ phantasies and macabre dreams. Actually, as Walter Benjamin suggested, his work pre figures the ‘phantasmagoria’ of the modern, illuminated capitalist metropolis. Again la Salle astonished me. I have heard at least 30 performances of Gaspard on record and in the concert hall, but I found myself hearing dozens of sounds, tones,inflections, I had never heard before! For instance, in the very opening of ‘Ondine’ , where the opening accompanying figure (sempre ppp), and the flowing left-hand melody rhythmically free, so as to evoke the fluid surroundings of the water sprite, I have never before heard  with such resonance the slight but totally effective contrast between right and left hand.The following, rather gruesome ‘Le gibet’ with its hypnotic pedal point around B flat was totally hypnotic here. In the last poem , which is a kind of diabolic scherzo representing ‘Scarbo’the devlish dwarf, la Salle brought out all the vivid sonorities and sweeping gestures with a level of compelling pianism I have only rarely heard. With last piece ‘Scarbo’ we are again enveloped by the constellative tones of ‘phantasmagoria’ which, with la Salle, resonated around the entire hall. It took me a good few minutes to adjust to a ‘lesser’, more quotidian reality!



Geoff Diggines




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