Joseph Havlat’s ‘small glimpse at the piano’s history of repertoire’ at Kings Place

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Joseph Havlat (piano): Kings Place, London, 27.3.2023. (JC)

Joseph Havlat

Hans Abrahamsen – 10 Studies
Robert SchumannGeistervariationen, WoO 24
Michael FinnissyRS Geistervariationen; selection from Gershwin arrangements: They’re writing songs of love, but not for me; Embraceable you
Ives – Songs without (good) words
Debussy – selection from Préludes, livre 1: Des pas sur la neigeMinstrelsLa cathédrale engloutieLes collines d’Anacapri
Respighi – selection from Ancient Airs and Dances, P 114: Siciliana-AndantinoBalletto detto ‘Il conte Orlando’; Italiana-Andantino; Campanae parisienses & Aria; Bergamasca

Kirckman Concert Society Young Artist Joseph Havlat’s curiously curated concert was a hit and miss for me. In a programme that centres around Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s 10 Studies, Havlat claimed in his detailed and intricate programme notes to complement the different ‘thematic threads’ of the 10 Studies with ‘what, by necessity, must be a small glimpse at the piano’s history of repertoire’. While the programming was innovative, linking together lesser-known musical compositions by way of seamless transitions as well as highlighting the difference in style within the Abrahamsen Studies, the playing was at times too eclectic to discern the musical identity of the pieces chosen to complement the centrepiece of the recital programme.

The 10 Abrahamsen Studies, which according to the composer himself ‘can be seen as studies of the piano’s character or soul’, are separated into four groups across the recital, according to the language of their titles, which also reflect the musical language they were written in. The Studies, which are the raison d’etre of the entire programme, were also the highlight of the evening. Havlat paid extreme attention to the sounds he created, unafraid to play extreme pianissimos and always insisting that the audience should, as he does, listen to the aftermath of the sounds he conjured from the piano. It made for a different experience in listening to music, one in which we are aware of ourselves listening to sounds; interestingly, Havlat noted that in the first four studies, the modern grand piano ‘remembers its romantic age … but seen from our time, as a kind of psychoanalysis’. There certainly was a sense of distance from the illusion created by the Romantics whilst still retaining their language. Schumann’s Geistervariationen — his last completed work — seemed to grow out of the sound world of the Abrahamsen, a fascinating phenomenon, but unfortunately here Havlat’s playing seemed to remain at the objective distance inherited from the music of Abrahamsen, and the musical meaning in the Schumann faltered.

The shift from Schumann to Finnissy’s RS Geistervariationen, and then using Finnissy’s arrangements of Gershwin songs to pivot towards the American identity embodied by the next group of three of Abrahamsen’s Studies revealed the Havlat’s creativity as a curator. Havlat’s virtuosic performance of Abrahamsen’s Boogie-Woogie study showed the razor-sharp accuracy of his playing; his virtuosity captured the mood of Abrahamsen’s Studies.

The second half of the recital brought us closer to the Mediterranean, to France and Italy. Linking the French Studies Rivière d’oubli and Cascades — with four of Debussy’s Preludes from Book I of his Préludes revealed a shift of focus towards the piano’s sound colours, the range of which Havlat explored masterfully with his acute sensitivity to the diminutive decibels that could be produced by the piano. Nevertheless, the liberties Havlat took regarding rhythmic rigour in Debussy’s Preludes detracted from their aesthetic beauty, leading the compositions to sound somewhat disembodied and lacking in structure.

The Respighi airs and dances — some of which have gone through multiple layers of transcription, the most recent being Havlat’s own arrangement — were delightful and would have been a wonderful way to end the concert on a positive note, but Havlat was not content with that: he chose to round off the concert with Abrahamsen’s last Study which, with its use of silence and fragmentation, acts as an epilogue of uncertainty and almost unease.

Jeremy Chan

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