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Solo piano – two ways

June 5, 2018
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It heats no homes, and grows no food, but the concert grand piano is on my list of finest human technological achievements. Almost anything you do with it sounds good. Great music on a great piano is an endless pleasure.

Two samples this week bear comparison. First was Paul Lewis’s recital at St George’s. Lewis is a wonderful performer, but not one who strays far from canonical concert repertoire. It’s the kind of evening to do occasionally – and we’re already booked for his date in a fortnight (the two were close together because of a cancellation and rescheduling). But a late ticket offer and another chance to hear the chap who helped St George’s select their shiny new Steinway were temptation enough to do both.

Friday was the pure  presentation of composed music. Lewis doesn’t speak – just walks on, plays, bows smilingly, and leaves the stage. Interval, and repeat. A little bit of Beethoven; two Haydn sonatas; a hefty dose of Brahms. A rousing ovation. All done by 9.05 pm, precisely as advertised – reinforcing a feeling that our man was intent on catching a train back to London.

All superbly done. Still, since you hear the same notes in the same order every time, why take in a live performance? Look for the Haydn Sonata in E-flat, and the first youtube hit is an excellently shot film of Alfred Brendel playing it as well as can be imagined. I tried to pay attention to what the live rendition yielded that was different.

Not better playing, to be sure. But you get a richer sound and, perhaps, a sense of connection. With the performer, the instrument, and audience. Even though St George’s was only two thirds full – unusual for this performer – sharing music with 400 other people who are concentrating intently does create an atmosphere of close attention that sharpens awareness of sound and silence. The spaces between the notes are louder – especially in St George’s acoustically limpid, deconsecrated space. It’s a pleasing communal rite, too. I’m not a great one for tribal custom: this one I like.

And there is something about this repertoire that makes one appreciate the piano more. These composers were exploring what it could do. This is apparent in the Beethoven bagatelles at the outset – these are essentially offcuts, but they are Beethoven’s offcuts, so each plays delightedly with what for him was a new-fangled instrument. The same is true, to a lesser extent of the Haydn sonatas. They do, all these years on, have the quality that he seems to fill out each phrase with exactly the note you expect, but that’s mainly a measure of how good a job he did, I guess. We now take all his tricks for granted.

And in the Brahms klavierstucke, similarly disconnected but more substantial than Beethoven’s bagatelles, the sound of the piano is grander still. He was born a century after Haydn, 60 years after Beethoven, so enjoyed the fully evolved grand piano, with steel frame and strings and mechanical improvements that brought the sound we now enjoy.

And what a sound. The Steinway on Friday delivered a top register like falling water, and lower notes that rumbled, growled and purred. And at climactic moments, especially the last bars of the Brahms, it roared. I daresay one could build an audio system that reproduced all this, almost, but it would probably cost nearly as much as the actual instrument. Better to remind the ears how it sounds every now and again by visiting a concert hall and hearing someone as good as Lewis play music like this, that uses it to such good effect.

Sunday’s set – 90 mins, no interval (what an excellent phrase that is) – from Tigran wasn’t quite unadorned piano. There was a little electronic decoration deployed, rather effectively, on one piece; some vocal percussion at the mike; one sung melody; and some exceptionally tuneful whistling. But the piano was the main business. The young player is something of a critical darling, as this review from Kings Place last year testifies – he played the Barbican the night before this gig as his only other UK appearance this time round.

I find much of what he does resistible, sadly – my failing, I daresay. There were scattered beauties all the way through, and some entire pieces succeed brilliantly. But the overall conception doesn’t quite keep the attention. I have never seen a solo piano recital from a player whose left hand was used to such static effect throughout. A note or three, often repeated unchangingly from start to finish, supports a continual stream from the active hand, but creates a monotonous effect, rhythmically and – some of the time – harmonically. Some of the tunes are deeply affecting, some aren’t. But all are delivered with a semi-devotional air reminiscent of Abdullah Ibrahim decades ago. It’s beguiling, up to a point, and obviously deeply felt, but if you aren’t quite swept up in the flow it seems to lack something. Hard to define what – I think where it falls down may be that this is music with the quality of improvisation, but without very much actual quality improvisation. The mid-tempo flurries from that busy right hand never falter, but all sound pretty similar over the long haul.

Still, everyone else seemed to find it thoroughly pleasing, and there was a good audience, about thirty years younger on average than Lewis’s crowd. So maybe I’ve just spent too long in the company of Monk and Moran, Stan Tracey and Fred Hersch, and not enough time steeped in Armenian tradition. I felt the force of that in the splendid encore, one of the tunes with gorgeous whistling to delineate the melody. But only intermittently before that.

Never mind. The Steinway sits in St George’s, awaiting its next collaborator (or adversary, as Stan used to say). That encounter will be different again.



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