A Fine Recital from Maria João Pires and Pavel Kolesnikov

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven. Maria João Pires (piano), Pavel Kolesnikov (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 20 2 2015 (GD)

Schubert – Allegro in A minor ‘Lebenssturme’, D 947
Fantasie in F minor, D9 40
Schumann – Fantasie in C Op.17
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor Op. 111

This recital was part of Maria João Pires’s ‘Partitura Project’ in which she shares the concert platform with her talented students from the Music Chapel, Brussels. Tonight her student was the young Siberian pianist, Pavel Kolesnikov, who sat in on his mentor’s performance, gave one of his own and joined with João Pires in the four-hand pieces. Legendary pianists of the past such as Kempff, Backhaus and Arrau certainly had students, but would not share a recital platform with them. This surely shows a degree of humility on the part of Joao Pires. Tonight’s recital was well composed in terms of repertoire, although apart from the two Schubert pieces for four-hands I could not discern any particular linkage or unifying theme.

The Allegro in A minor was composed in 1828, the year of the composer’s death. The name tag ‘Lebenssturme’ (‘Storms of life’) was not Schubert’s nomination but it has stuck. It is not entirely arbitrary as the work does have a sense of turbulence and melancholy about it. Indeed it is in a key that Schubert frequently used to express melancholy, even dramatic tragedy. A minor is also the key of the piano sonatas D 784 and D 845, both works with a distinct sense of melancholy and dark tonality. Also the opening movement of the so-called ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet, D 804 is an irresistibly beautiful elegy in A minor. As I listened to the opening allegro and two-theme exposition I was increasingly drawn into the music’s power and symphonic drive, surpassing its predecessors not only by virtue of the concentrated energy of its pounding chords, its harmonic brusqueness and polyphonic density but also in the case of its second subject, in its chorale-like, almost mysterious tone. There is something Brucknerian about the theme: such wonderful presentiments of the later composer may be found in a number of works from Schubert’s final years. All this was played in a totally spontaneous way, with the most subtle rubato when required. And even in the most agitated and complexly contrapuntal writing every note was absolutely audible without ever sounding mechanical or bland. Teacher and student played in total accord, and an enchanting sense of dialogue.

From its C minor first movement, to the concluding set of six contrasting variations, João Pires was attentive to every harmonic nuance, every rhythmic/lyrical contrast of Beethoven’s formidable last piano sonata in C minor, Op.111. The opening C minor Maestoso and Allegro con brio were bold and direct, eschewing all kinds of imposed interpretive rhetoric. As Toscanini used to say when conducting say the ‘Eroica’ Symphony: ‘…this music is not about Napoleon or Hitler, for me it is Allegro con brio’. And I had this same sense of freshness in João Pires’ approach; clearing away all the romantic rhetoric of ‘titans’, or that the music is like Atlas carrying the whole weight of the world on his shoulders; for her it was simply Allegro con brio. The powerful, tense and ‘defiant’ mood of the exposition reminded one strongly of other Beethoven pieces in C minor mood: the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata; the Fifth Symphony, the ‘Coriolan’ Overture. The Arietta was phrased with great care and eloquence, never sounding ‘dragged out’ or sentimental. The six concluding variations, like the first movement, were taken in one span, as it were. The third variation, with its mood of ‘tremendous exultation’ to use Tovey’s phrase, never lost sight of the underlying modal structure, related to the home tonic, but now in C major. Even in the jazzy ‘boogie woogie’- sounding section we were kept aware of its place in a classical sonata structure. The final variations on the dominant G, and the ensuing coda in E-flat major was in perfect harmony with Tovey’s ”ecstatic repose’.

As with Schumann’s ‘Humoresque’, which received a wonderful Wigmore Hall performance from Imogen Cooper last week, the great Fantasie in C, Op.17, is not only replete with themes, codes (some quite arcane), and poetic ideas from contemporary Romantic writers like Schlegel and Novalis, but also equally cryptic ‘love’ codes for his wife-to-be, Clara Wieck. Schumann’s engagement with Romantic literature was not in any way merely instrumental or arbitrary: poems on ‘Ruins’ and ‘mystical nature’ by the likes of Schlegel and Novalis were integral to Schumann’s imagination and inspiration, and to his creative spirit as translated into music  which speaks of the sometimes complex emotional states aroused by romantic literature. And with Schumann there is the added complexity of the projection of extreme musical/emotional contrasts – which here, however, do not apply to the same degree as a work like the ‘Humoresque’.

The Fantasie in C is notoriously difficult to play. It requires a special sustained quality, especially in the last movement; a mastery of the extremes in the dynamic range, and an ability to make the contrasting three sections cohere. I didn’t always feel that Pavel Kolesnikov managed the complex contours of the first movement, especially the way Schumann’s coded language rises to furious unresolved suspensions – as one commentator has put it, ‘no less modern than those found in Tristan’. Instead of Schumann’s surge and forward flow, a note of blandness crept into Kolesnikov’s playing. And the outburst of highly-strung euphoria, – the other side of the composer’s habitual melancholy – in the second movement, seemed all too restrained. It was well played but with little sense of the emotional frisson contained in those ‘virtuoso leaps’. Kolesnikov was more successful in the finale. Here the sense of ardent desire, its gradual development proceeding over latent pedal-points, was most impressive, especially in the subtle phrasing of the triplet motion. The two powerful climaxes were well gauged with no sense of interpretive imposition. I just wanted the last climax, its build-up, to be that degree more charged and potent. But overall it was a fine rendition of one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. Maria João Pires sat beside him on the platform as he played.  I was left wondering what splendours she would have brought to the work. But that would be to miss the whole point of this collaborative recital, the partial aim of which is to introduce developing and new musical talent.

Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor for four-hands received a nuanced and compelling performance. There’s much to attract the listener here, including the opening lyrical and haunting theme over a gentle dotted pulse; the juxtapositions between F minor and F major; the agitated and turbulent second movement and bright lively scherzo; the finale with its central fugal section and coda with its haunting re-statement of the first movement opening theme. Again teacher/mentor and student played in splendid dialogue. It was an eloquent and fitting conclusion to a deeply rewarding musical event.

As an encore Maria João Pires played an idiomatic, and hushed rendition of György Kurtág’s ‘Hommage à Schubert’ from Book 3 of his cycle Játékok (‘Games’). It lasts under two minutes but encompasses a plethora of moods and recognitions.
Geoff Diggines

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