United Kingdom Chopin, Ravel, Prokofiev: Giuseppe Guarrera (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 3.3.2020. (MBr)
Chopin – Polanaise-Fantasie in A-flat Op.6
Ravel – Miroirs: ‘Oiseaux tristes’, ‘Une barque sur l’océan’, ‘Alborada del graciosa’
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No.7 in B flat Op.83
This was, in many respects, a well-thought-out piano recital. But as is so often the case what one expects to hear is rarely so. With barely a century separating the three works on Giuseppe Guarrera’s program this gap sometimes felt rather narrower than it should have. In part, this was because Guarrera’s performance of Prokofiev’s second ‘War Sonata’ often sounded as if it was coming from the wrong war – an elasticity in time which brought us closer to the Chopin.
With his frizzy hair and spectacles – and in at least one press photo I have seen of him, a beard – there is a striking resemblance to another Giuseppe – Sinopoli. That conductor’s attention to detail, the inner voices he found in music and a tendency for imaginative phrasing – this is all something this pianist shares. The three middle pieces from Ravel’s Miroirs – there are five of them – had remarkable tonal dexterity. It wasn’t just that in ‘Oiseaux tristes’ Guarrera suppressed the syncopations in Ravel’s writing; rather that his picture of the bird calls was so dramatically done. There was no attempt to simplify Ravel’s rhythms – quite the opposite – more an emphasis on the piano keys shifting their sound towards instrumentation: the shriek of a piccolo, the glissando of a harp or the brightness of a horn. In ‘Alborada del graciosa’ there had been nothing remotely colourless about his playing either. Melodies defied their technical complexity and were instead unravelled with the dramatic shaping of a Bolero. His fingers seemed to turn the piano keys into the strings of a flamenco guitar.
Chopin’s Polanaise-Fantasie op.61, which opened Guarrera’s recital, hadn’t struck me as a particularly illuminating performance. One of Chopin’s final works, it lacks a formal structure, but I’m not convinced that Guarrera made much of its improvisatory themes. It was perhaps the transitions in the middle section which caused the most issues here, not quite lyrical enough – though the brevity of the polonaise rhythms themselves didn’t feel sufficiently distinctive either. If this music is supposed to have an episodic, almost chapter-like intricacy, it felt rather too conjoined for my taste.
Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.7 can often bring out the best in pianists, and this performance had been no exception. I’m not sure I would wish to hear one delivered or interpreted quite this way, quite that often, but on its own terms it was a remarkable achievement. Written in 1942, it has a specificity to a time and place. Guarrera, however, took us back to another time and place – and another war. The sheer weight of sound, the massive bleakness of the colours – rather unusually inverted – and the disturbing and destabilizing tonality (also unusually emphasised) were explicitly terrifying. This was a performance which sounded unmistakably like trench warfare, often as if it was wading and pushing through mud, and yet with an underlying power which unfolded with the inevitability of impending slaughter.
Guarrera is a pianist who has an effortless ability to tie virtuosity and creativity seamlessly together. The ‘Allegro inquieto’ shook with clusters of chords but it was how he had shifted from the slow second theme into the violent and torrential development which had revealed his mastery of this work. The ratcheting up of tension felt like attrition before the pent-up explosion. I’m not entirely sure Guarrera’s interpretation of the ‘Andante caloroso’ is one we were used to hearing either. Rather robbed of its sentimentality, it sounded more decayed than is the norm, those tolling bells more like the unfolding of grief at a military funeral.
The ‘Precipitato’ is open to a wide degree of interpretation – and many pianists have approached it in many different ways (I’m not sure I have ever heard it better done than by Bronfman). Guarrera was no exception to this, though how he began it – with all the gravity and heaviness of a tank – suggested it might be among the slowest I have heard. Imposing the opening of it might have been, but the way in which Guarrera drove the brutality of the recapitulation, with crossed hands on the keyboard, massive unrestrained chords and thundering octaves like shell fire ended up being as intense and furious as any. It was certainly different, and certainly exhilarating.