Finding the right tempo in Debussy and Beethoven

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Debussy, Beethoven:  Nelson Goerner, Victoria Hall, Geneva, 27.3.2016. (ALL)

Debussy First Book of Préludes

Beethoven Sonata op 106 Hammerklavier

When a pianist has Martha Argerich and Radu Lupu in his audience, he has to be something special.

Their friend Nelson Goerner now lives in Geneva where he also teaches at the “Haute Ecole”.  Judging from this evening, one could assume that as a professor, he must spend time and effort in helping students find the right tempo, the one where articulation is effective, where harmonies have room to blossom but above all, where the line flows.

Nelson Goerner’s reading of Debussy was atmospheric, thus turning back from the analytic playing in vogue today. Each piece was delivered with tonal and a sense of characterization. But pieces like “les collines d’anacapri” or “la cathédrale engloutie” simply moved forward. There was a balance between harmonic richness and development which made them revealing.

Given Goerner’s known mastery of Chopin, Debussy was felt as a natural extension of his repertoire. The fact that he would be at home in Beethoven and no less than in the Hammerklavier was unexpected. He has, needless to say, all the technical qualities to conquer this Everest of Sonatas. But he also displayed genuine unexpected architectural control.

The opening allegro had pianistic panache. Goerner established a regular pulse but also was very subtle in respecting the many tempi variations while never letting down the drive of the score. The scherzo was fleeting. The Brucknerian adagio sostenuto was the highlight of the evening. Too many pianists cannot resist delivering a punch by being over expressive in the first bar. Goerner took the piece at a flowing – not brisk – pace. The long lines developed with grace and naturalness. Once again, Goerner’s intelligence in setting tempo was special. The final largo was again a prowess of piano and only at the very end did one start to realize that Goerner was a little tired.

The audience was attentive and was rewarded with various encores: a poème by Scriabine showed how tonality could continue to evolve after Beethoven’s complex Sonata but the hugely difficult Etude for the left hand by Blumenfeld was a show-off piece which may not have been necessary. The concluding Chopin Nocturne was more soothing. But after such towering performances, were any encores really needed ?

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer


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