United Kingdom Mozart, Schumann, Beethoven, Schubert: Louis Schwizgebel (piano), St John’s Smith Square, London, 2.12.2016. (RB)
Mozart – Sonata in D major K576
Schumann – Kinderszenen Op.15
Beethoven – 32 Variations in C minor Wo080
Schubert – Sonata in C minor D958
Swiss-Chinese pianist, Louis Schwizgebel, has won major prizes at a number of international piano competitions including the Geneva and Leeds competitions. He clearly has a prodigious technique as can be seen from his recent recording of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit (review). His general choice of repertoire and the refinement of his playing put me in mind of previous winners of the Leeds such as Perahia and Lupu.
Schwizgebel opened the recital with Mozart’s very last piano sonata which dates from 1789 and features a significant amount of contrapuntal writing. He brought enormous clarity and precision to this performance and demonstrated a refined appreciation of Classical style. The ascending quavers in the opening Allegro were beautifully weighted and the articulation was superb. Schwizgebel brought a feathery lightness to some of the textures and there was wonderful shaping of the material. The counterpoint was handled well although occasionally I would have liked him to bring out more of the playful quality in some of the exchanges. The central Adagio was poised and beautifully balanced and Schwizgebel brought an elasticity to the phrasing which helped to underscore some of the unusual harmonic twists and turns. The finale was effervescent and brilliant and some of Schwizgebel’s finger-work was dazzling, particularly in the left hand. He captured the increasing dynamism of this movement well while keeping the textures crystalline and the exchanges tight.
From Mozart we moved to Schumann’s Kinderszenen which the composer wrote in 1838 when he was at loggerheads with his future father-in-law, Friedrich Wieck. These poetic miniatures are technically very easy to play but they require the highest standards of musicianship and Schwizgebel proved to be more than equal to the challenge. He brought an enormous range of colour and penetrating musical insights to the work, perfectly realising these entrancing miniatures. I loved the whirling childlike exhilaration of Haschemann and the burgeoning joy of Glückes genug. Träumerie was mesmerisingly beautiful while Ritter vom Steckenpferd had a vibrancy and unfettered exuberance. Fürchtenmachen captured brilliantly the shadowy fears that can be conjured up in a child’s imagination and the sense of mania that can flow from such an experience. Kind im Einschlummern was rich and incandescent while Der Dichter spricht was rapt and poetic. This was absolutely superlative playing and it was a great way to end the first half of the concert.
The opening work of the second half was Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor which the composer wrote in 1806 when he was at the height of his powers and introducing a string of new masterpieces to the world. The opening theme is very similar to the opening of Schubert’s late C minor Sonata so it was interesting to hear the two works played back to back and without a break. Schwizgebel gave a stunning performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in the final of the Leeds Piano Competition and once again he proved himself to be a consummate Beethovenian. He caught the sense of drama and impetuosity from the outset and some of the passage-work was dazzling. The sense of struggle and exhilaration was there throughout but there was also space for poetic reflection, for example in variations 12-14. As the work progressed, Schwizgebel succeeded in summoning a stunning array of tone colours from his Steinway to reflect the composer’s shifting moods and transformations of the theme.
Schubert’s C minor Piano Sonata is one of the great masterpieces of the repertoire and it was written in the final year of the composer’s all too short life. I was interested to see that the programme notes recommended Pollini’s recording of this work. I tend to admire the great Italian pianist in 20th Century and contemporary repertoire rather than in Schubert but I have to say that I do particularly like his recording of this sonata. So how did Schwizgebel compare to Pollini, Lupu, Brendel and other great interpreters of this work? There was clearly much to admire here although I was not completely convinced by this performance. The contrasting themes in the first movement were well characterised and I particularly liked Schwizgebel’s handling of the development section with its ghostly chromatic scales. The dynamic contrasts were observed and Schwizgebel was careful not to break the tone in the louder passages. However, I felt the playing was a little too careful and I would have liked him to inject more of the raw pain that courses through this music particularly in the louder sections. Schwizgebel upped his game in the Adagio which was heartfelt and moving and I was impressed with the range of dynamics and the striking orchestral sonorities he coaxed from the piano. He also brought enormous sensitivity to the Menuetto, although I would have liked him to have created more of a contrast between the minor and major key sections (Pollini is particularly good in this movement). The final nightmarish gallop was played with tremendous energy and saw Schwizgebel casting baleful shadows around the hall before shining a gentle light into the darkness with the enchanting B major interlude. The C Sharp minor section which features a lot of hand crossing was played with virtuoso aplomb and Schwizgebel did a marvellous job synthesizing all the motivic elements. The coda was a final descent into the abyss before the final two emphatic chords brought the performance to a shattering conclusion.
This recital featured some highly sensitive playing and real musical artistry. Schwizgebel was greeted with enthusiastic applause from the audience and performed Lizst’s transcription of Schubert’s Ständchen as an encore.