Elissò Virsaladze: The Concert and the Course

ItalyItaly Various composers: Elissò Virsaladze (piano) and members of her Masterclass. The Caetani Castle of Sermoneta. Campus Internazionale di Musica and Festival Pontino di Musica.  9.7.2016 to 12.7.2016. (JB)

Elissò Virsaladze

July is the month when my music education is  expanded to new dimensions by the challenges I witness at Elissò Virsaladze’s Masterclasses with some exceptionally gifted young pianists, discovering talents they had, but didn’t  yet know about.  There is only one hotel in Sermoneta – a  converted Mediaeval  watchtower – rather tastefully converted – and breakfasts with Elissò add another dimension to my learning, sometimes through lively disagreement.  And this year there was the huge bonus of a Virsaladze recital too, which promised to include Schubert’s great, final sonata. During the seventy-kilometer drive from Rome to Sermoneta, I found my head full of sounds and thoughts of Schubert.

All Schubert’s music is about Death. Even in those songs welcoming the first buds of spring; even when he is in a major key; in no time at all, the shades of Death appear. Call this pathos if you must, but to my ear it is unmistakably the Great Divider, the inner voice from which Schubert had no escape. The Dalai Lama says there isn’t much difference between Life and Death. It turns out that His Holiness is right –biologically too.

I am currently putting myself through a course of microbiology with the invaluable aid of Enrico Coen’s excellent book, Cells to Civilizations. All living things – plants as well as animals – operate through an elaboration of  thousands of minuscular cells. Summarized crudely and briefly, there is a complex lottery taking place within every living organism. The pseudo scientist, Richard Dawkins, claimed in a best-selling book title that all genes were selfish. And sometimes they are, but sometimes they are remarkably altruistic. The philosopher, Mary Midgley, at once pointed out that at best, Dawkins was trying to pass metaphor off as science, and at worst, that the metaphor itself was mistaken. It appears that Mrs Midgley’s worst scenario was correct.

Like Tony Pappano, Enrico Coen was born in the UK to Italian parents, both of his are art historians. Coen uses painters’ techniques to show how these (unconsciously) replicate the newly discovered laws of microbiology. He uses algorithms to illustrate this. I had never understood algorithms before now and just to think that here is a mathematical explanation of what is biologically happening to me every second of my life! Coen also darkly hints that there may be ways to “cheat” the algorithm, opting for life when death is the destination. But too much of that would turn out to be a “bad thing” too: the “trick” is to be as comfortable in the Dividing (Death) zone as well as the Enhancing (Life) zone. All this is a Buckley crude summary of Coen’s more detailed scientific explanations. And none of it relies on social Darwinism, which I see as mistaken as Dawkins and barking up the wrong metaphor tree!

Painters, we learn, from modern canvas diagnosis, often change their ideas of both design (shapes) and colours, while a work is in progress. With music training, I see how well this works with Schubert. The brightness is positively life enhancing but it doesn’t progress very far before it becomes life threatening (often gently, but all the more convincing through its very gentleness).

Schubert’s sonata in G D894 Op78 (1826) was the last of his piano pieces to be published in his lifetime.  Many pianists have seen it as his sunniest composition. But all of them have noted the clouds which form, sometimes dense, sometimes light, over each movement. Richter (who was Virsaladze’s mentor in her student days) declared it his favourite Schubert sonata, taking forty-five minutes to play it, against the usual thirty-five.

I didn’t time the Virsaladze performance but it will live in my aural memory forever. In the opening movement she used two kinds of cantabile: (1) a very daring finger cantabile which ought to have come out hammering, but somehow it didn’t, and (2) the more usual forearm cantabile. But the artistry doesn’t end there: it’s the melting of one into the other and back again as though fingers and forearms are guiding the mind. This uniqueness of mind and body makes for a rare aural experience.

She delivered the second movement with such an air of simplicity as though to get out of the way of it, letting it speak for itself. The third movement came with mock-seriousness, complete with echo effects.  The finale was populated with Schubert’s birds of spring with their almost forced cheerfulness, then a flurry of different winged-feathered tunes.

Mozart’s Rondo in A minor KV 511 preceded the sonata. She played this with a hushed, casual air, beautifully understated, sound seemingly falling from the ends of her fingers rather than being struck, and the episodes feeling they came out of the rondo, which on every appearance appeared always more quietly; just as you feel she has reached the maximum pianissimo, she drops the sound a dynamic further. But this is a pianissimo which gets enriched as it diminishes. I’ve heard very great singers do this. But never a pianist.I would have said it was impossible.  But I also know that Elissò Virsaladze is a master of the impossible.

What happened after the interval was truly shocking. It could have been another pianist. Was she tired Unwell? Bored? She began with the Mozart sonata in F, K533. All of it sounded as though she was afraid of missing a train, with notes missed and the two outer movements thickening like scrambled eggs. None of the elegance and grace of the Rondo.

Then the Schumann Carnaval  was played like a study in hysterical frenzy, with all the charm, gentle humour and wit thrown to the winds and the piano trying, but not succeeding, to sound like Wagner. The lady is a Schumann specialist. And she must surely know that Schumann’s metronome was faulty, so those indications are to be taken with a very large pinch of snuff. And this is a woman with immense personal charm. But for some inexplicable reason it was not made available to Schumann.

There were a large number of Japanese and Korean pianists signed up to her Masterclass. All of them sound much the same to me, all accurate like a very good imitation. Of course, Elissò has to work hard to make their imitation sound convincing. She demonstrates at the second piano and they imitate very well. But imitation it remains. At a breakfast conversation she sprang to their defence: It’s not just the Japanese. Everyone is playing by imitation these days. We just gave a very good American boy the third prize in Brussels: he’s doing a PhD in mathematics at Harvard but played the piano superbly. No doubt. But I am uncomfortable with the clean-as-a-whistle-but-no-soul style of playing. Maybe you should stop listening to young pianists  she retorted, a bit peeved by my stance. Certainly not: there are pianists in your own Masterclass who, through your guidance, convince me totally. 

Scriabin has always struck me as the talentless composer in whom talentless pianists take refuge, in the hope they will sound like pianists. Given the large Japanese input to the end-of-course recital he was overly represented. Sorry, but it was yawn all the way for me. Another Elissò quote: I’ve only now worked out this business of piano teaching: those who arrive with talent leave with talent enhanced; those who arrive without talent, leave without talent. She was talking about her three-year course in Moscow here.

One oriental-looking young woman made a terrible mess of two sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti at the recital. But there is a real composer of genius.  The girl was mechanical: a trap the talentless can easily fall into. I’m surprised Elissò allowed her to play at the recital.

The recital is always arranged with a crescendo of talent and the best last. There can be no doubt that the last three were  roughly in the right place.

Ashley Fripp is an  English European who has the sharpest intellect of any young pianist that I ever met. I spent a lot of time talking with him: music, philosophy, politics, literature, theatre –you name it, he is highly articulate and frequently original, in all spheres. You only have to suggest an idea to him and he will finish it for you with a flourish you weren’t expecting. All this informs his pianism. I said to Elissò that he must be heaven to teach. She said, he certainly is. As he wants to audition for her Fiesole Mastercourse (she teaches at Fiesole six weeks spread throughout the year) it looks as though he might be accepted there.

He played the Chopin Barcarolle at the concert. The problem of this piece is keeping the flow, even when the flow changes direction. Not only did he do this, he managed it without any impression that he was policing the piece, and at the same time introducing the subtlest pianistic colours that he contrived to sound like unexpected, happy accidents. He sometimes pulled back on the pathos but then let it  surprisingly speak. He took his audience on a musical adventure. And we were with him all the way.

The Portuguese pianist, Joao Xavier, was the penultimate recitalist. (I would have given this place to Fripp.) This was a level of pianism that we hadn’t heard yet: assured but also feeling his way with great sensitivity. He played Debussy’s Etude no 10 followed by the Prokofiev Sonata no 3 op28. His account of the Prokofiev, in particular, was dazzling, but also, thoroughly musical at every turn. Prokofiev’s whimsy got perfect whimsical treatment, and the composer’s darker side was also served unflinchingly. It is fair to add that Xavier is already in Elissò’s Moscow course. He evidently can’t get enough of her and came to Sermoneta as well. (This frequently happens; I’m sure I’d be the same if I were her pupil.)

Best last. And it functions admirably as an encore piece, which is where it is placed in the programme. Franck Laurent Grandpré was sitting next to me at the castle’s mensa lunch, the same day as the concert. I asked him if he was a pianist. He looked at me as though he thought I was trying to  joke. He spoke in halting English. My French is lousy. He said he would be playing tonight one of his own compositions which Madame had liked. How very nice, I said. I hope so, he replied.

The knowing twinkle in his eye came through in the performance of his Salsa Lipsa (Leipzig Sauce). It was, of course, a critique and tribute to Liszt, with musical nods and winks liberally distributed throughout the score.I myself felt his greater debt was to his country’s greatest pianist-composer, Camille Saint-Saëns.  No wit like French wit. His complete enjoyment of composing and playing his music communicated itself to every pair of ears in the house. Even the deaf couldn’t miss it. Well, sometimes the deaf do miss it, he said wryly. Watch out for him. He gives complete recitals of his work.

Jack Buckley

2 thoughts on “Elissò Virsaladze: The Concert and the Course”

  1. Interesting point of view .If rather long winded and not relevant ………..
    We all know Elisso Virsaladze’s credentials I wonder what Mr Buckley’s are when he talks about arm and finger legato and rather more presumptuously about her tired,unwell,bored and hysterical performances of Schumann Carnaval and Mozart K.333.No mention is made of her three encores from an enthusiastic( – 1 )audience that had flocked to hear her after last years absence due to serious illness.

  2. Mr Axworthy seems bent on misunderstanding on what I wrote. Tired? Bored? Unwell? were followed by question marks -an effort on my part to try to understand something which I didn’t understand. And I said so. Even now, I cannot think of any explanation of what happened in the second part of the concert. I understand that not everyone will be able to follow my thoughts about Schubert. But that doesn’t make them longwinded or irrelevant. I see it as my duty to readers to write about what I heard and not what I would have liked to hear.


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