English profiles

July 2003 

Last week I went to another concert during this year's piano festival Ruhr (www.klavierfestival.de); I had never heard Andrei Gavrilov live, although I own several of his CDs. As I don't like them all equally well (his Bach and Scriabin are fine to my ears, his Chopin is awful), I wanted to hear him in a recital to re-assess him in a concert situation. What's more, he hasn't recorded much during the last 15 years, so that his approach to some composers may have changed somewhat.

Düsseldorf, 22.2.2003

Last Saturday I went to see a recital with Evgeny Kissin in my hometown, Duesseldorf, in the series of solo piano recitals. I would like to give my impressions of it, and hope it is of interest to some members here (even if they don't agree with it...).

When I first set my eyes upon the program that was scheduled for this recital, I was a bit surprised

Düsseldorf 2003

I've been there yesterday and I have to say it was really fabulous. It was the first time I saw Sokolov live in concert, although I have already listened to a fair quantity of his CDs and radio broadcasts. The concert hall in Duesseldorf wasn't sold out (as it had been with the previous concert given by Kissin), but it was clear that the people that went to this concert were music-lovers rather than event-goers. They were unusually disciplined and quiet throughout the recital and aside from one cell-phone ringing (it was silenced quickly) and one hearing-aid beeping in the first minutes nothing disturbed the recital.

Sokolov opened it with the Bach sonata after Reincke (BWV 965), a work that is quite rarely played in concerts and that I did not know before. From the beginning Sokolov made it clear that for him, playing Bach on a Steinway concert grand is the obvious thing to do nowadays. He certainly made use of the whole dynamical range, from pianissimo to triple fortissimo, using both pedals to create
different sound effects as he desired them. On the whole, it seemed to me that it worked pretty well, even if Bach-purists (and I imagine there are some of them, especially here in Germany) may object it
sometimes sounded rather like a Busoni or Bach transcription. But the way he played it, bringing his clear and precise yet never harsh touch to the fore, it created a whole new world of sound, with the
contrapuntal lines weaving into each other and beautifully constructed climaxes. The technical side was impressive as well - the way he never lost control, even in the midst of the most furious presto-passages, was really amazing. All in all, his playing had an intensity, a kind of furious concentration and obvious dedication to every note he played which could leave no listener untouched.

I liked the following Bach/Brahms - Chaconne for the left hand alone a bit less, maybe because I've grown very fond of the Bach/Busoni-transcription for two hands; compared to this, the Brahms version for one hand sounded thin, with the cathedral-like majesty of the Busoni piece missing. Nevertheless it was interesting to see that even the rather skeletal frame of this piece still held a unique quality, and Sokolov made the best out of it with one hand, following the melodical line more seamlessly than others do with both hands together.

After the intermission followed three Beethoven sonatas: the two from op. 14 and the op. 28, called "Pastorale". Again, the sincerity and emotional involvement of Sokolov were impressive, and to my ears he conveyed very much the spirit of Beethoven - one could almost believe that the composer would have played that way himself. Singing, cantabile-like melodies in the slow movements, extensive manipulating of dynamical differences - although those were sometimes brought to extremes, but it always sounded natural, convincing, never artificially harsh or displaying virtuosity just for its own sake. The simple opening of the op. 14/2-sonata was varied along the first movement and changed colours every few bars; especially the last movement of this sonata was impressive, played with crystal clarity and a temperament that conveyed Beethoven's sometimes furious temper very well. - The "Pastoral" - sonata that ended the recital began in just the right mood and made allusions to his 6th symphony, at least in the first movement. Sokolov's emotional involvement was obvious, as well as that he apparently knew exactly how he wanted everything to sound like: One always got the impression that, like a painter, he had the whole picture in his head and just filled it out quite naturally, just as there was no other way to do it. Even if it may not be everyone's way to play Beethoven - some may favor a more innocent approach like Richard Goode's or something more intellectual like Brendel's - I found it shed a brilliant light on many subtle details, illuminating everything without pointing it out too obviously.

The audience rewarded this exceptional performance with enthusiastic applause, and ovations that are - at least in Duesseldorf - rather unusual. By the way - to me Sokolov on the stage looked a bit like a goblin (not a malicious one, of course, rather a good-natured one, even if he never smiled) or a somewhat strange old wizard. - All in all, the audience was clapping away furiously, and was rewarded by five (!) encores: First of all Couperin's tic-toc-choc, then Ravel's Toccata from the Tombeau de Couperin (a rather humorous choice of playing those two in a row), followed by a piece I couldn't identify but which may have been something by Rameau or Froberger, and at the end two Chopin Mazurkas. Especially the Ravel Toccata was awe-inspiring - he should play the whole Tombeau once in a while. In resumé, a memorable evening - and a program sincerely recommended
to everyone who is near where Sokolov plays. Go watch him - you won't be disappointed!


Argerich / Rabinovitch Bonn, 1.10.2002

Martha Argerich

So, now I've found a bit of time to write a more detailed report on how those two played on the first of October. I awaited this recital with a mixture of apprehension and fear - fear because she may not turn up after all, and apprehension to how the pieces would sound compared to their CD recordings that I own.

Well, first surprise - they didn't play the "Visions de l´Amen" de Messiaen which was scheduled for the second half of the concert but replaced it by the Haydn-Variations op. 56b (Brahms) and the first
suite for two pianos op. 5 (Rachmaninov). I have to say that I didn't regret that at all; I had listened to the Messiaen before the concert (as a sort of preparation) and didn't find it that interesting, especially more than 30 minutes of it. Call me conservative, but I can only digest that sort of music in small doses.

So, here they go - La Martha comes upon the stage in her usual swagger, talking animatedly to Rabinovitch and generally gives the impression of going to a nice dinner among friends rather than to a recital in a concert hall packed full of people (it was sold out, by the way). Rabinovitch - pardon me for this, but that's what I thought at that moment - really resembles a scarecrow. He, of course, had
brought his hairdryer-like hand-warmer with him, and Argerich had to wait a little until it was properly adjusted (seemed to me a somewhat ridiculous procedure, but well, if the results are ok...). They didn't start, as one might expect, with Mozart's sonata for 2 pianos KV 448 but with the big Brahms sonata for 2 pianos op. 34b. This symphony-like work demands much from both pianists, and Argerich seemed much more up to the task than her partner. He had the first part, by the way, and everything that came from the left half of the hall didn't convince me. Blurred runs, whimsical ritardandi and sporadic dynamical outbursts were what Rabinovitch produced. This was somehow softened by Argerich's own, immaculate and spontaneous approach to her part, but couldn't be overlooked nevertheless. Especially as in the last few weeks I have heard her play that work rather often on tape, with Zilberstein and Béroff, and found those versions much more to my liking. With Rabinovitch, the virtuoso passages were taken more slowly - apart from when Argerich took the lead - and the two pianists were not always playing very well together. Also when approaching a climax, it wasn't done in a linear way but sounded a bit rhapsodical. This was at least true for the first and the two last movements; the second was somewhat better, even if Rabinovitch had the tendance of drowning everything in his pedal.

The Mozart sonata that followed confirmed my impressions - Argerich's part sparkled and introduced subtle nuances, shading of tonal colours and a singing tone that Rabinovitch lacked altogether. If it wasn't as disastrous as the sonata she played with Eschenbach some weeks ago in Lübeck (see my report on this), it wasn't a memorable Mozart performance. Her Mozart sonatas with Kissin or Freire were much, much better - technically perfect, with clear musical phrasing and an elegant (at least with Freire) way of playing together. - So, altogether, it was rather disillusioning; much has been said of
Argerich's partners and why she chooses to play with them, so I won't repeat that again, but it started to be true here, too. But well, the concert was far from being finished.

After the intermission came the Haydn-variations - and to my surprise they were played much better than the sonata before, even if Rabinovitch failed when the technical demands started to go up. But
they played together very well and gave every variation its own character, making this so-often played piece a new experience. Maybe it was because it's a somewhat easier piece, and also easier to convey musically as it doesn't demand a big-scale-approach like the sonata with its huge structural difficulties.

The Rachmaninov-suite that now followed was the best part of the concert, in my opinion. Fluid, virtuoso piano playing with sparkling details all along the way, turning this a bit salon-like music into a captivating experience. There they interacted really well, maybe that music suits Rabinovitch better than the classical composers. In any case, I have rarely heard this suite played better, and as I had the
privilege of a view on Argerich's hands the whole evening, that was a real treat, seeing her speeding along the keyboard and making quick jumps with an ease that belied any difficulty involved. Amazing how she does that at her age - a real phenomenon. She certainly is one of the best Rachmaninov players I ever heard; if only she would play some more of his works...well, everyone can dream.

The applause was, of course, deafening, and that lead to two encores: the first being the second movement of the second suite by Rachmaninov (Valse), played fast but noticeably slower than she does with Freire; to watch her play the ultra-fast repetitions that the piece demands was awe-inspiring nevertheless. The second encore was an excerpt from Ravel's "Ma mère l´oye", I think it was "Laideronette". I didn't like that so much, they played it quite harsh and unforgiving, much less sensitive than with Chung (in Beppu) or with Freire. What produced some laughs before they started playing was that - as it was a work for piano 4 hands - Argerich had to seat herself on the hair-dryer-seat which was way to high for her, and she signaled that to the public and chuckled a bit about it.

All in all, an exceptional second half and a first that I'm likely to forget quite soon...wishing she would come and play with Freire here in Germany at some time in the future. But the next concert's already
scheduled - in Cologne with the Kremerata Baltica (Shostakovich).


Severin v. Eckardstein / 15.8.2003

I just came back from attending my (last) recital of this year's "Klavier-Festival Ruhr" (www.klavierfestival.de), where the young German pianist Severin von Eckardstein played this evening. He had been invited as a sort of "carte blanche" to the winner of this year's Queen Elizabeth Piano competition. Unfortunately the concert had been sold out long before the winner was announced (small concert hall, many places reserved for sponsors), but I went there anyway and was determined to attend the recital - I had been following more or less the whole competition (as some regulars on the internet may remember) and absolutely wanted to hear him live again. In fact I learned that there were always some extra tickets held back for people like me, so it wasn't a problem at all to attend, although I hadn't one of the best places. But well, life's a compromise...

The program was very interesting - varied and with several pieces that are seldom heard in concert. The recital began with Beethoven's 24 variations on a theme of V. Righini (Veni, amore), WoO 65. I had heard that one quite recently, played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and von Eckardstein held his own very well there. Every variation was thought out, played with attention to detail and yet not neglecting the "fil conducteur" of the set (as Anderszewski sometimes does, for example). I'm always struck at how easily Beethoven's style can be recognized - he really has his own tonal language, if that's the right expression for it. In spite of some minor disturbances (especially hearing aids squeaking away), I found he held the audience's attention quite successfully.

He continued with a work he had also (partly) played at the competition - the first sonata by Schumann op. 11. One of my favorite works, yet a difficult one to play as it's somewhat rhapsodic, Schumann apparently being not really at ease with the sonata form. Von Eckardstein began with a rather fast tempo, but which I found more fitting than the overly dragging tempo that other pianists use (Perahia, Kissin, Glemser), yet not as exaggerated as Banfield, for example. In my opinion he captured the spirit of Schumann's music perfectly - sometimes wild passion and drama, sometimes poetry and tenderness. Everything seemed to come quite natural, with an inherent musicality that had nothing of the sometimes forced quality that Kissin's playing caracterizes, adding a rubato every two measures and constructing climaxes all over the work. The second movement (Aria) was beautifully sung out, and the two last movements were sparkling and intense. Of course there also was virtuosity, although never with ostentation; the technique was there, but was not put to the forefront. Quite rare for someone his age, I have to say.

After the intermission, three pieces that are, in their character and mood, very different but have one thing in common: They're rarely played in concert, and not many recordings exist of them. First Grieg's Ballade op. 24 in g-minor, a work that nowadays only another German (Gerhard Oppitz) sometimes plays in his recitals, as far as I know. It's not an easily accessible work like the Chopin Ballades or a demonic showpiece like the second Liszt-Ballade. But all the ingredients of Grieg's music are there - the often dance-like character, the harmonics that, for me, already point to Debussy, and the lyrical passages that could also come from one of his famous "lyric pieces". Not really great music (although to be fair I should hear it more often), but it would deserve to be heard and played more often.

Second came Granados' "El amor y la muerte" (love and death) from his "Goyescas". I notice here again how little spanish music is played in recitals - only recently there was a discussion about "Iberia", which is (after De Larrocha's retirement) nowadays at least played by Hamelin and Freire. Others should turn to Granados, too - there is much to be found. Beautiful soundscapes, evoking the heavy, a bit mythical aura of Goya's paintings, mixed with a multi- layered texture of interesting rhythms and interwoven melodies. There again I found it impressive how von Eckardstein was able to dive into this completely different world with so much ease. He really seemed to be at home there, too, maybe even more so than in Grieg. He clearly had the musical mind not only to play the notes (which is already a challenge with that piece), but to breathe life into it, to re-create it. Sometimes he used a bit too much pedal for my taste, but then again the acoustics of that hall were not the best anyway, so it's hard to judge correctly. I enjoyed the Granados a lot, and will relisten to De Larrocha's version one of these days.

The evening finished with a piece that has a reputation to be unplayable - Horowitz said something of a player with 6 hands, if the legend is to be believed. I'm talking about Godowsky's "Passacaglia" which is a work of 44 variations (+ cadenza + fugue) on a theme from Schubert's unfinished symphony. I only know of one other pianist who dares to play it in concerts regularly - Marc-André Hamelin. Maybe Konstantin Scherbakov also plays it, but he doesn't give as many concerts, and I don't know his programming. In any case it's an awesomely difficult work, even if Hamelin says that pianists who play Rachmaninov sonatas or Prokofiev concertos have the technique for Godowsky as well. Difficult also musically, to make the theme shine through the polyphonic ornaments that Godowsky has woven. Von Eckardstein clearly had the technique that allowed him to do just that, even if it wasn't with the superhuman ease with which Hamelin's playing seems to be imbued. Musically his sometimes slower tempi were also convincing, nevertheless. At least to me he succeeded quite well in weaving those variations into a coherent musical structure, at the same time caracterizing each one. I really think other pianists should play Godowsky's music, too - maybe not instead of, but besides old warhorses like the Appassionata. Godowsky's (and Alkan's, and Medtner's...) works are really worth it, and I can only applaud von Eckardstein for his courage to perform and to program such a work.

He got much applause, and rewarded the audience with two encores - the first was, I think, a piece by Couperin, the second Rachmaninov's "Polka de V.R.". Thus was concluded a delightful evening with first-class-pianism of a young talent to be watched.