Georgian Icon Elisso Bolkvadze Performs a Musically Diverse Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Michel Sogny, Debussy, Prokofiev: Elisso Bolkvadze (piano) Cadogan Hall, London, 20.1.2016. (GD)

Mozart:  Sonata in B flat major K 570

Schubert: Impromptu D 899 (2, 3, 4)

Chopin: Andante Spianato – Grand Polonaise Brilliante, Op 22

Michel Sogny:  ‘Entrevisions’

Debussy:  L’isle joyeuse

Prokofiev:  Sonata No 2 Op.14

This was a kind of Georgian cultural PR event, with two representatives from the Georgian Government prefacing the recital with projections of Bolkvadze as a Georgian cultural icon and rather generalistic calls for her artistry to condition more positive relations between Georgia and particularly Western Europe, although it could have been read as including  a wider scope of  nations and cultures. I, for one, was becoming anxious to see/hear the ‘actual’ icon. But I suppose in the present climate of unease between East and East ( even suspicion about former Soviet possessions such as Georgia), such attempts at cultural rapprochement can only be seen in a positive light.

What first struck me about this piano recital was the range and diversity of musical/pianistic genres and styles Elisso had chosen; all technically and musically demanding maximum virtuosity and musical/pianistic insight. I am not sure why, but I was anticipating the late Mozart sonata to be the most difficult for her; the one that would be the least compelling in terms of insight and pianistic finesse. I always remember Arthur Schnabel’s insight that Mozart’s piano sonatas are used for children’s piano practice, but that the greatest, most experienced pianists (himself included) find them among the most difficult to play and to understand. The simple style (especially of K 570, which is thought to have been such a practice work) is apparent in the ‘smooth’ triple-time opening promising simplicity of form and texture; but this very restraint allows great sophistication and staggering  economy in the use of counterpoint and key relations. Contrary to my initial expectations all this was brought of  with great insight – I was particularly impressed with the way in which Elisso could magically suspend the ‘swaying’ movement of the opening phrases and the way in which the stunning economy of the contrapuntal development  was allowed to unfold on its own, as it were, with a minimum of interpretive intervention. Similarly the second movement with its thirds, fifths and sixths was beautifully shaped, and the ‘solitary’ C minor contrasting section  was perfectly integrated into the whole design of the movement. The deceptively ‘bright’ and simple rondo finale with its repeated-note figure, anticipating  the overture to Die Zauberflöte, was brought off with charm and exuberance.

Next Elisso played Schubert’s Impromptus 2, 3 and 4 from the Op 90, D. 899.I initially wondered why she didn’t play the first impromptu in C minor? But it is the longest of this set of four, and probably would have been too much in an already wide and diverse recital. The second impromptu, in E flat major, with its contrasts and rapidly flowing outer sections with an explosive B minor section, were played with great sensitivity; the B minor section was dramatically contrasted. But here I thought the rapidly flowing opening could have been better delineated at a slightly slower tempo, as we hear in Maria João Pires’ performances and recording. The third Impromptu in  G major, so effectively used in Michael Haneke’s 2012 film Amour, was delivered with all the passion of a ‘song without words’. The more turbulent minor key section was played at a considerably slower tempo thus losing the sense of unity and coherence Schubert intended, as demonstrated in the great Schnabel recording. But apart from this Elisso’s playing  was compelling in its own terms. In the final Impromptu Elisso brought out the latent melody in the left hand, emerging from various tonal contrasts and juxtapositions matched by the long-spun radiant expressiveness of the trio.

From the rippling in a serene 6/8 of the Andante Spianato  in G major, to the brilliant fanfares and dance rhythms of the Grande Polonaise in E flat major, Elisso was in top form relishing every subtle contrast of the former, and extrovert bravura tone of the latter. Chopin had originally composed Op 22 to be played with an orchestra. Tonight Elisso’s playing was so vivid in its virtuosity and empathy that an orchestra wasn’t really necessary.

It is quite remarkable how little contemporary French music get a hearing the UK. The brilliantly diverse composer Pascal Dusapin is one obvious example. So a score by Michel Sogny was most welcome. Entrevisions is taken from a collection of poems of that name by the Belgium poet Charles Van Lerberghe, a student of Maeterlinck. It is comprised of 16 pieces for piano, each piece reflecting the mood of a particular poem. Elisso gave the work its premiere on French TV in 2010 (the complete performance is available on You Tube). Sogny is also a Doctor of Philosophy, and Entrevisions can be seen as a meditation on Lerberghe’s poems inflected by related philosophical/ontological themes such as transience, the unconscious, dreams and existence as mutable and undecided, given to ‘spectral’ illusions (think of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, based on Maeterlinck’s famous play, with all its allusions to ghosts, revenants and spectral aporia.) Sogny’s work is certainly influenced by the strange harmonies of some of Debussy’s later piano music. I also even heard traces of Ligeti. But overall Sogny speaks his own musical language. I found it totally fascinating with musical mood-scapes ranging from some beautifully composed melodies (also traces of melodies), to uncanny (‘unheimlich’) semblances of harmony, and bi – tonal dissonances. And Sogny could not wish for a better advocate of his music than Elisso Bolkvadze. The composer was in the audience and stood up to applaud the performance of which he was obviously delighted.

It was excellent programming to follow the Sogny work with Debussy’s radiant L’isle joyeuse, inspired by a painting by Watteau (‘L’embarquement pour Cythere’). It is amazing that Debussy can include such a myriad range of themes, tonalities, contrasts, inversions etc, in a piece lasting just under 6 minutes! Its Lydian D sharps, and its mood swings from tonal ambiguity to a resolute A major was given a luminous rendition, fully commensurate with Debussy’s protean powers of invention, and full of the most subtle contrasts and pianistic finesse.

From the time of its first performance in 1912 Prokofiev’s Second Piano Sonata has been likened to all manner of non-musical phenomena. One eminent Russian critic even went so far as to liken it to ‘a herd of mammoths charging across an Asiatic plateau’! Of course such bizarre analogies can detract from the sonata as music. Even so the mammoth analogy, no matter how outlandish, has an element of truth; there indeed is an element of un-tamed barbarism in this sonata. It deploys a wide range of styles; it mixes traditional style melodies with harsh dissonances and the break-up of melody. It is arguably one of the most difficult pieces to play in the whole piano repertory. I am thinking of just one example of this in the first movement where several dynamic levels/dissonances relate (or not) with a recurring chiming bell motive in the left hand. The second movement is a toccata-like scherzo with several allusions to Robert Schumann. The third is taken from a Russian fairy tale and is full of juxtapositions between unfolding melodies, and mysterious ‘frozen’ sonorities. The finale is full of emphatic and loud rhythms, and cross-rhythms with allusions to a kind of cancan burlesque dance. No doubt these excursions away from the ‘classical’ model were the reason some commentators have termed the music ‘carnivalesque’ taken from the great Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. Like the music Elisso’s performance was dazzling. She fully intoned the anarchistic character of the music, while never losing total control. Right and left hand were both fully synchronised and and detached, as in the recurring bell like figurations for left hand, mentioned above.  It was the kind of performance that opened up details I did not know existed. A riotous, ‘carnivalesque’ and amazing conclusion to an amazing recital. Well, not quite. As an encore we were treated to a dramatically stimulating rendition of Chopin’s Etude No.12 in C minor Op. 25. 

Geoff Diggines

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