United Kingdom Beethoven, Brahms, Bartók and Prokofiev: Lukas Geniušas (piano), St. John’s Smith Square, London, 12.1.2016. (CS)
Beethoven: Sonata No.5 in C minor Op.10 No.1
Brahms: Sonata No.1 in C Op.1
Bartók: Three Burlesques Op.8c
Prokofiev: Sonata No.7 in B flat
The Southbank Centre’s 2015/16 International Piano Series continued on Tuesday night – displaced to St. John’s Smith Square as a result of the on-going refurbishment of the Queen Elizabeth Hall – with a thought-provoking and impressive performance by the Russo-Lithuanian pianist, Lukas Geniušas. The twenty-five-year-old hails from a pianistic dynasty: both his parents are pianists, as was his grandmother, Vera Gornostayeva, who died in January 2015. Gornostayeva was a Professor at the Moscow Conservatoire and an important mentor for Geniušas. Such a lineage might bring its own challenges; indeed, Geniušas has commented, ‘I always have known that my task is to represent and continue the traditions at a highest level but pressure would actually become more tangible after my own achievements showed up and I naturally became responsible for them’. In fact, winning first the Silver medal at the Chopin International Piano Competition in 2010, the German Piano Award in Frankfurt am Main two years later, and, last year, the Silver Medal at the XV Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2015, seems not to have brought added pressure, but to have given Geniušas a quiet inner confidence. In this imaginatively compiled programme both his pedigree and individuality were strikingly evident. Modest and youthful in appearance, the pianist’s stage manner is unshowy, even reticent; yet his playing demonstrates great maturity.
Geniušas’s playing combines the highest levels of technical prowess with seemingly effortless execution. The gentle evenness of the most intricate, lacy filigree; the fluidity of the left-hand; the giddy lightness of the whirlwind finger-work; the strength expressed with such focus and dignity: all were accomplished with the minimum of fuss and, apparently, little expenditure of physical energy. There was a remarkable stillness about Geniušas’s seated figure; the upper arms and back seemed barely to move, the hands spanning the length of the keyboard with mercurial agility and quicksilver sleekness.
Beethoven’s Sonata No.5 in C minor opened the programme, and immediately the wide range of Geniušas’s expressive palette was evident: a terse, tautly sprung opening soon transmuted into lyricism. In the Allegro molto e con brio there was an exciting balance between free-flowing movement and the moments of tension provided by the punctuating chords in the left hand. The Adagio molto was warm and spacious: the touch was sure but tender, the phrases carefully, if at times idiosyncratically, shaped, with the hymn-like chordal passages contrasting pleasingly with the more fantasia-like decorations. For this listener, the movement possessed a beautiful rhetorical expressiveness which bloomed as the thematic explorations developed and culminated in a gentle diminuendo to the final low chords. The Prestissimo was full of elfin mischief. The restatement of the light-hearted second subject, in the tonic major, was light and airy, but this was a deceptive tangent before the impressively weighty close.
That brief digression did, however, foreshadow the shift from minor key to major, which came about with the movement from Beethoven to Brahms’s First Piano Sonata in C, the composer’s Op.1. The combination of majesty and vigour in the first movement Allegro was immediately compelling – the pianist seemed to create a lot of power without overt physical movement – and contrasted wonderfully with the veiled melancholy of the second theme. Geniušas had a wonderful command of the structure throughout, and of the interplay of cross-rhythms, and he built through the movement to a beguiling richness in the final bars. The Andante opened with a dreamy ‘Once Upon a Time’ ambience, and its melodies unfolded with care and clarity. In contrast, the Scherzo: Allegro molto e con fuoco literally exploded into being, and the dynamic energy was sustained by the rhythmic complexity and the insistent repeating notes; the movement’s Trio section was notable for the refined definition of its melody, and the controlled interplay of the different voices – the textures were unfailingly clear. The Finale was taken at a precipitous pace; this was playing of the highest technical assurance.
Bartók’s Three Burlesques followed the interval and here Geniušas exploited the folky simplicity of the idiom to delineate strongly the differentiated characters of the three short pieces. In ‘Quarrel’, the pedalling was excellent, and the continuously running quavers, peppered with incisive accents acquired an ever more ‘nagging’, agitated quality. Variety of articulation, subtle rubatos and lurching acciaccaturas made ‘Slightly tipsy’ veer towards inebriation, while the untitled Molto vivo capriccioso was a hypnotic whirligig of figures, coloured by bluesy harmonies, which closed with wonderful, feather-light finger-work.
If Bartók’s miniatures allowed Geniušas to reveal a more playful side, then the final work, Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7 in B flat, the second of the composer’s so-called War Sonatas, immediately wrenched us back to a graver, more brutal world. The Sonata made an effective parallel with the Beethoven Sonata with which the performance had commenced: both are in three movements, and the dark, ominous mood of Prokofiev’s work recalled the disquieting, tragic tone of the earlier Sonata. The Allegro inquieto was edgy and tense, the octave unisons initiating the driving, mechanistic energy which ceaselessly powers the movement. I was reminded of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with its long shots of marching workers in strict formation, intercut with close-ups of pounding pistons and machines. The Andante calorosa provided emotional relief after such dissonant relentlessness, though, despite Geniušas’s perhaps rather excessive rhythmic dreaminess, the restless unease of the first movement was never quite banished. The final movement did not quite make the impact that I had anticipated. The driving 2-3-2 ostinato of the Precipitato was perhaps not sufficiently fleet of foot, but again the textures were clear, the middle voice repetitions tolling like an echo. Sviatoslav Richter, who gave the premiere of the Sonata in Moscow in 1943, after learning it in just four days, commented of the work: ‘Death and disorder reign. Man observes the raging of death-dealing sources, but what he lived for does not cease to exist.’ And in the closing passages Geniušas found a fresh resonance that, despite the astonishing power of the chordal dissonances, intimated ultimate strength and triumph; with the closing cadence, the pianist leapt to his feet, as if propelled by a life-affirming force.
Two Chopin encores concluded the evening, the Mazurka Op.63 No.2 and the Waltz Op. 34 No.2, confirmation if it were required of Geniušas’s technical brilliance.