United Kingdom Grieg, Scriabin, Ravel, Debussy, Prokofiev: Benjamin Moser (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 12.3.2016. (RB)
Grieg: Lyric Pieces – excerpts
Scriabin: Prelude and Nocturne for the left hand Op 9
Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit
Debussy: Children’s Corner
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in B Flat Op 83
Benjamin Moser is a young German pianist who has won critical acclaim for his recordings of Russian and French piano music. Since 2012 he has been studying with Alfred Brendel and his latest recording features the last sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert – who better than Brendel to provide guidance on this repertoire?
The recital opened with five Lyric Pieces by Grieg: the composer wrote ten books of these shorts works and they span his entire career. I was impressed that Moser showed such composure given the noise coming from various parts of the audience at the start of the concert. Moser showed a rich variety of colours, a sensitive touch and close attention to detail in these miniatures. To Spring was luminous, with the sweet melody which opens the piece gradually becoming more impassioned. There was some nimble finger-work and bouncing rhythms in March of the Dwarves and stylish execution in Butterfly (often played as an encore by Gilels and Gieseking). Moser captured the nostalgic character of Vanished Days beautifully while the festivities of Wedding Day at Troldhaugen were skilfully evoked.
From Grieg we moved to Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne for the left hand which the composer wrote in 1894. Scriabin was a student at the Moscow Conservatory and he injured his right hand in 1891 because of over-zealous practice of Balakirev’s Islamey and Liszt’s Don Juan Fanstasy. The Prelude and Nocturne came about as a direct result of this injury. Moser adopted a very full tone and he sustained the line well and I particularly liked the filigree work at the end of the Nocturne. However, I would have liked the melody, accompaniment and decorative elements to have been more clearly differentiated and for Moser to have used a wider variety of textures and tone colours.
The first half concluded with Ravel’s three poems of transcendental virtuosity Gaspard de la Nuit (‘Treasurer of the Night’). The work was inspired by a trio of dark, unsettling poems by Aloysius Bertrand which describe the seductive song of a water nymph, a ghoulish portrait of a hanged man on a gibbet, and the frightening darting movements of a goblin at night-time. In composing the work, Ravel set out to write a piece more technically demanding than Balakirev’s Islamey and the work is notoriously difficult to play. I rather enjoyed Moser’s performance of the piece which was technically accomplished and faithful to the score while at the same time eschewing unnecessary artifice. The shimmering right hand ostinato had a spellbinding quality in Ondine and Moser scrupulously observed the composer’s very soft dynamic markings. He captured the elements of seduction brilliantly and I loved the shaping of the ripples on the pond and the water nymph’s mocking laughter at the end of the piece. Moser produced a compelling narrative tone poem in Le Gibet with its tolling B flats: the shifting harmonies and sonorities perfectly depicted the macabre scene depicted in Bertrand’s poem. Scarbo was taut and spiky and I was pleased to see Moser using the pedal sparingly. The early section where Scarbo darts and pirouettes around the room was a dazzling piece of playing. Moser ran out of steam towards the end of the piece and the big climax with the barnstorming chords and double octaves didn’t quite have the power of definition that it needed. Overall, however, this was very impressive playing of one of the towering works of the repertoire.
The second half opened with Debussy’s perennially popular Children’s Corner Suite which the composer wrote in 1908 for his daughter Chouchou. These miniatures were well characterised by Moser and there was much to admire here. There was a wide range of textures in Dr Gradus ad Parmassum with Moser giving us dry scales and figurations at the beginning before getting lost in reveries. Fat sounds at the bottom of the keyboard conjured up Chouchou’s toy elephant in Jimbo’s Lullaby while the Serenade for the Doll with its plucking sounds had an ethereal delicacy and refinement. The Snow is Dancing had a luminous, mesmerising quality while the Golliwog’s Cakewalk brought out the swing of the Jazz era while poking fun at people who take themselves too seriously.
The recital concluded with the second of Prokofiev’s ‘War Sonatas’ which the composer wrote in 1942 when he was working on his opera, War and Peace. The first movement is marked Allegro inquieto and Moser kept the lines clean and taut, bringing out the grotesque, satirical qualities in the music. I would have like to hear more of the anxious, restless quality that the composer asks for, particularly in the middle section of the movement where Moser seemed to push the tempo a little. The second movement was a little on the fast side and it did not seem to hang together as a coherent whole: the middle section in particular lacked shape and definition. The final precipitato was the best of the three movements and I enjoyed the way Moser built up a head of steam and allowed the music to catch fire in the final few bars.
Moser was coaxed back to the platform by the Wigmore audience and performed the first of Schumann’s Kinderszenen as an encore. Overall, there was much to admire in this recital and I was particularly impressed with the performances of Debussy and Ravel.