United Kingdom Debussy, Brahms, Schumann, J.S. Bach: Cyrill Ibrahim (piano), The Brangwyn Hall, The Guildhall, Swansea. 5.10.2016. (GPu)
Debussy – ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, Hommage à Rameau’, ‘Mouvement’ (from Images Book I)
Brahms – Two Rhapsodies Op. 79
Schumann: Allegro Op.8
J.S. Bach – Keyboard Partita No.22 in C minor BWV 826
This was the first time I had heard Cyrill Ibrahim, whether ‘live’, recorded, or broadcast. Although he has a solo CD out (Dialogue) on which he plays much of the music in this concert programme, and though he was a Radio 3 Young Artist of the Week in July of this year, I am afraid I missed such chances to hear him. My first impressions were generally favourable during and after this concert. To say that a young artist is “promising” can sound as if one is damning him or her with faint praise. I certainly don’t intend to do that here. I mean merely that he is, at his best, already very accomplished, but his level of achievement is variable. So not quite a finished artist yet, for which ‘promising’ seems, in no negative sense, to be the right adjective.
As yet Mr. Ibrahim seems most at home in the Romantic repertoire. For me, the most memorable single item in his recital was the Schumann Allegro in B minor, Op. 8, an early work (from 1831 when the composer was 21), which has had less attention than it merits. Schumann himself apparently came to regret having published the work, which he thought insufficiently coherent. Ibrahim’s reading of the work accepted its romantic gestures wholeheartedly, embracing its “sound and fury” without believing that it “signified nothing”. Throughout lines were well moulded, accents emphasised and silences well deployed so as to delineate larger musical shapes very well. This was a pianist entirely at home with the bravura nature of much of Schumann’s writing, at home both technically and temperamentally. In a well-executed and intelligent performance Mr. Ibrahim suggested that this was the work, amongst those he played on this occasion, with which he most fully identified.
If his Schumann showed Mr. Ibrahim at his best, it was perhaps in his playing of the Bach Partita (BWV 826) that he was least convincing. It is only fair to confess that I still generally prefer to hear Bach’s keyboard music on a harpsichord, rather than a modern grand, but this is one of the pieces that seems to work quite well on the piano, as evidenced by recorded performances such as those by Martha Argerich, Angela Hewitt, Maria João Pires and Murray Perahia. An ideal performance of this work, on whatever instrument, balances the demands of, as it were, architecture and dance. Mr. Ibrahim was, I thought, stronger in terms of architecture than dance. Structures, that is to say, were articulated with considerable clarity, but sometimes at the cost of the rhythmic variety in this partita of six movements. For my taste, there weren’t sharp enough distinctions between the dances that give the movements, all but the first (a ‘Sinfonia’), their titles. The Courante might, for example, have had rather more grace of movement, while the rhythmic vigour of the Rondeau tended to obscure some of the detail in Bach’s writing. There were good things too, of course: the Sarabande had a persuasively soothing quality and the initial Sinfonia made good use of dynamic contrasts. So a mixed success – the kind of variability of achievement I mentioned earlier and which one rather expects from instrumentalists early on in their careers.
Schumann and Bach occupied the second half of Cyrill Ibrahim’s programme. The first half had been given over to three pieces from Book I of Debussy’s Images and Brahms’s Two Rhapsodies, Opus 79. Of the three short pieces by Debussy, I was particularly impressed by ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, which had a genuine poetry to it, though I did feel that there were moments when Mr. Ibrahim made the waters a little ‘choppier’ than was altogether necessary. Generally, however, he maintained the kind of supple rhythm that the piece needs, and the passage towards the end of the very first minute, when the right hand plays some cascading sonorities over melodic writing in the left hand was handled to beautiful effect. The ‘Hommage à Rameau’ was played with striking expressiveness and, typically of this pianist (as I was beginning to learn) it had a clearly articulated sense of structure. ‘Mouvement’ was perhaps the least convincing of the three, the pianist never quite characterising the piece in a convincing or consistent manner; though all the notes were there and were in themselves well played, the piece never quite came alive.
There was much to enjoy in the pair of Rhapsodies by Brahms. The turbulent opening of the first (‘Capriccio’) was handled very well, as was the rapid conclusion to the piece. The poetry of the slower middle section, a kind of lullaby, was perhaps less certainly grasped and articulated and, possibly wrongly, I thought I detected one or two losses of concentration at this point (for the only time in the evening). The second of the Rhapsodies, in G minor, has no further title, but is marked ‘molto passionato’ and it got a performance that lived up to that marking. Once again the performance was both very clearly shaped and had many telling details very effectively ‘pointed’. As with his Schumann later, Mr. Ibrahim seemed here to be in territory where he felt most at home and in which he had found a convincing balance between the different aspects of his art. Cyrill Ibrahim is already a pianist well worth hearing; when he achieves that balance across all the music he chooses to play he has the potential to be a very special pianist – that is he has real promise.