United Kingdom Scarlatti, Ligeti, Chopin, Messiaen, and Schumann: Antonii Baryshevskyi (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 2.3.2015 (MB)
Scarlatti – Sonata in A major, Kk 113
Sonata in C major, Kk 159
Sonata in D major, Kk 96
Ligeti – Musica ricercata
Chopin – Mazurkas: in B-flat major, op.7 no.1; C major, op.56 no.2; F minor, op.68 no.4
Messiaen – Three pieces from Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus
Schumann – Piano Sonata no.2 in G minor, op.22
Many of us fall into an easy, perhaps too easy, dismissal of ‘competition winners’. No one in his right mind would say that winning a competition is anything but a beginning. Moreover, we have all heard plenty of the bland, technically perfect playing, with nothing to say about the music, or indeed the musician, which gives ‘competition winners’ a bad name. That said, it seems perverse and indeed unfair to dismiss the very real achievements, both musical and personal, triumphing in such conditions may indicate. Antonii Baryshevskyi, winner of the first prize and gold medal at the 2014 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition here made an impressive Wigmore Hall debut, which would have been just as impressive whether he had won that competition or not, but for which that experience may well have helped prepare him.
It was only in Schumann’s second piano sonata, the final piece on the programme, that I thought in those ‘competition’ terms. It is no mean feat to perform the work with such virtuosity as we heard, but I did not always discern so much beneath the surface. In its first movement, likewise in the scherzo and finale, I did not feel that Baryshevskyi’s Fazioli did Schumann many favours. There was welcome clarity, but the brightness of tone did not always sound ideal. Fluency was undoubtedly impressive. The slow movement, however, was possessed of a characteristic sadness, with a crucial Schumannesque sense of ‘poetry’: songful, yet not maudlin, with kinship to Mendelssohn.
The recital opened with three Scarlatti sonatas. I could not help but wonder whether including one minor-key and/or one slow piece would have offered greater contrast, but what we heard was nevertheless well conceived. The A major sonata, Kk 113, opened in bright, declamatory fashion. Terraced dynamics made their point but there was also variegation within. The C major sonata, Kk 159, showed still more that Baryshevskyi was unafraid to use the full resources – well, more or less – of the modern piano to Scarlatti’s benefit: no attempting to imitate a period instrument here, though there were welcome echoes of the guitar. Hand-crossing was relished, and put to musical as well as technical ends. The Handelian opening of the D major sonata, Kk 96, came with a splendid flourish. Harmonic twists later on were conveyed with proper understanding. If there were times when I thought the pianist’s way with ornamentation might have sounded more idiomatic on a harpsichord, there were others when it emerged in melodic terms to the advantage of his chosen instrument. Repeated notes were mightily impressive in their despatch.
Ligeti’s Musica ricercata was a very welcome choice. This is process music in the best sense; one hears and experiences the implications – whether as pianist or as listener – of the increase in notes: from just the two in the first (and the D is only added to the A in the final bar) to all twelve notes of the chromatic scale in the eleventh. Baryshevskyi’s performance was as full of wit and character as the work itself, and conveyed with evident understanding of its nature as a whole. The first piece seemed well prepared, its crescendi something quite new, magnificently executed by the pianist. One could really appreciate the novelty of a third note in the second piece, which, moreover, truly sounded as Ligeti has it: ‘Mesto, rigido e cerimoniale’. After its high drama, the third piece sounded like the love-child of Scarlatti and Prokofiev, its toccata-spirit unabashed. The ‘Tempo di valse’ piece which followed seemed almost to evoke Chopin’s ugly sister, the ungainliness of its dance predicated on a secure waltz-foundation. The eighth and ninth pieces sounded very much as a Bartókian pair. (The ninth is dedicated to Bartók’s memory.) Rhythm and melody alike in the former sounded very close to the earlier Hungarian master, whilst his dirge- and night-music seemed reimagined in the latter. Toccata-like writing again came to the fore, both in work and performance, in the tenth, whilst it was Bartók, Bach, and of course Frescobaldi who were recalled in the chromatic final piece, the ‘Omaggio a Girolamo Frescobaldi’. It offered a clear, inevitable conclusion, again both as composition and as performance.
Three Chopin Mazurkas opened the second half. For me – and this is unusual – the B-flat piece, op.7 no.1, suffered from too much rubato, it proving difficult to discern a pulse. However, there could be no decrying an identikit, ‘competition winner’ performance; this was clearly a personal response. There was no such problem with the C major work that followed, op.56 no.2. It was far from metronomic; such would be monstrous. There was, however, a strong, even heavy pulse – quite appropriate to the piece – which was then varied tellingly. The F minor Mazurka, op.68 no.4, one of my favourites, again was performed with pronounced rubato, but in winningly ‘old school’ fashion. Baryshevskyi’s Chopin certainly intrigues, from this taster.
In between the Chopin and Schumann came three pieces from Messiaen’s Vingt regards. ‘Première Communion de la Vierge’ instantly proclaimed the ‘right’ sonority, irrespective of instrument. The brightness of its treble was certainly put to excellent use, but the ‘rightness’ was more a matter of old-fashioned ‘touch’ than anything else. Just as important, Baryshevskyi had a fine sense of how Messiaen’s music hangs together and progresses: how it works. His voicing of chords was often exquisite, but never narcissistic; there was always an understanding, or so it seemed, that Messiaen’s theology insisted upon something far more than the hoary construct of ‘absolute music’. Post-Lisztian virtuosity was not, however, to be sneezed at. ‘Noël’ conveyed the ecstasy of the Incarnation well, although there were just a few occasions, especially earlier on, when rhythms might perhaps have been tighter. The echoes of Gaspard de la nuit were well judged, though. In ‘Regard des hauteurs’, that excellent toccata-style once again came to the fore, here well negotiated in terms of tricky metres. I only wished I could have heard more.