United Kingdom Brahms, Schubert, and Liszt: Alexandre Kantorow (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 8.3.2023. (MB)
Brahms – Piano Sonata No.1 in C major, Op.1
Schubert-Liszt – Der Wanderer, S 558/11; Der Müller und der Bach, S 565/2; Frühlingsglaube S 558/7; Die Stadt; S 560/1; Am Meer, S 560/5
Schubert – Fantasy in C major, D 760, ‘Wanderer Fantasy’
I have come a little late to the party for Alexandre Kantorow, the first French pianist to win the gold medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition, in 2019. (A French winner seems unlikely this year, for sadly obvious reasons.) This was my first encounter with Kantorow, but I certainly hope it will not be the last. His Queen Elizabeth Hall recital revealed both transcendental virtuosity, very much in the line of Liszt, but also a first-rate musical mind.
Having more or less given up on the Brahms piano sonatas as not for me, it was gratifying to be shown how wrong I had been. Kantorow’s performance was one of those times when one heard a work with which one had long had difficulties, only to wonder what those difficulties could ever have been. Grabbing the first movement by the scruff of its neck, he took Brahms’s opening Hammerklavier references for the red herring they are, revealing a work emphatically rather than incidentally in bright C major, Beethovenian precedent instead furnished by the Waldstein Sonata. The second group proved properly tender, taking its leave from Schumann, yet in half-lights already strikingly mature. Muscularity and freedom were both readily apparent; so too was a coherence surprising not so much in itself, but rather in that it was achieved through a command of line that never took the easy, formalistic route and was all the more convincing for that. A turbulent development section swept us into a recapitulation full of poetic magic. The second movement was darkly Schubertian. At times, its freedom was such as to sound quasi-extemporised, yet it was always sure of where it was heading. Quietly surprising, it found powerful contrast in an energetic scherzo whose trio melted somewhat yet never unduly, before building equally – at least – in power. Like its predecessor movements, the finale might on the surface have seemed rhapsodic, yet was despatched in gloriously Romantic freedom crucial to a far-reaching conception of the whole, with all the technique required to bring that off.
There followed a selection of five Schubert songs as arranged for solo piano by Liszt. How every one sang — and sighed – each different in character yet similar in virtues technical and more broadly musical. Veiled yet full of tone, Der Wanderer and Der Müller und der Bach spun narratives and fantasy worthy of both Schubert and Liszt, privileging neither, the first song of course preparing the way for Kantorow’s later performance of the Wanderer-Fantasy. Shades of Schubert impromptus, heard through a Lisztian prism, were manifest in Frühlingsglaube, albeit with decoration that could only be Liszt. Schubert’s mysteries in Der Stadt were multiplied by Liszt — and kept multiplying. Here was truly sepulchral Romanticism. Am Meer, poised like the song itself, between the stable and the hallucinatory, proved equally yet differently poignant, as if it were experiencing and yet revisiting at once.
The Wanderer-Fantasy opened with brighter tone, recalling the opening of the Brahms — as, of course, did the key. It was no less freely virtuosic than either Brahms or Schubert-Liszt, and Kantorow again worked the magic of having us hear Schubert at least partly via Liszt, perhaps via Brahms too. Familiar themes and progressions sounded newly minted. Likewise the song at the fantasy’s heart sounded both ancient and newly conjured. Finely shaped whilst always sounding spontaneous, it culminated in twin crowns of fugato and coda that, understandably, left the audience keen to hear more.