Severin v. Eckardstein / 15.8.2003

I just came back from attending my (last) recital of this year's "Klavier-Festival Ruhr" (, 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.