Rhinegold Publishing

Issue: November/December 2015

BBC Proms 2015

8:52, 26th November 2015

Michael Church

The high points of this year’s proms were three solo Bach performances – of the unaccompanied string works but Alina Ibragimova and Yo-Yo Ma, and the Goldberg Variations by Andras Schiff. Since Schiff has played this monumental work for most of his life, and recorded it several times, nobody could have been better placed to deliver it here. Schiff’s first explemplar was Gleen Gould, but there were no question of his essaying an X-ray analysis of the sort Gould achieved in the recording studio: Schiff’s job was the present it larger-than-life to more than 5,000 people. The rapt 75-minute silence of this packed late-night audience was testimony to his achievement.

With its mystical threes – 30 variations divided into groups of three, each containing a virtuoso toccata, an elegant character piece, and a polyphonic canon – this work’s epic journey presents the challenge of shaping each piece while at the same time keeping in view the architecture of the whole; the Schiff did faultlessly. With crystalline clarity of articulation, ornamentation that was delicate but not fussy, and a perfect legato with almost no pedal, his performance was restrained; but the lightning hand-crossings, cascades of triplets spattered with trills, and other technical fireworks were brilliantly negotiated. At the dark heart of the work – Wanda Landowska’s ‘black pearl’ variation – he cast a spell from which, in the little pause that he allowed afterwards, one could sense the entire hall awakening.

Meanwhile a string of other pianists were having their say about Mozart’s late concertos, and we were reminded just how many ways there are of getting them right – and also wrong. Leader in the latter category was David Fray, whose leaden touch ironed out all traces of poetry in the Concerto No 24 in C minor, and whose unfortunate choice of cadenza – a garrulous effort by Paul Badura-Skoda – just made things worse. No question of an encore from him: the audience was only too glad to let him go. There was real disappointment, however, that Maria Joano Pires didn’t play one after her lovely performance of Piano Concerto No 23 in A major. There was a bloom on the notes as she made her first entry, and there was nothing tricksy about the candenza she played – Mozart’s own – just a gentle reinforcement of what had gone before.

That rapidly rising star Igor Levit was allotted the Concerto No 27 in B-flat major – Mozart’s farewell to the form – and to it he brought a touch so delicate as to seem weightless, and an intimately confiding sound. It was like listening to a speech by a master-orator who never needs to raise his voice, yet when it was needed he had all the authority required. His encore – Shostakovich’s Waltz-Scherzo – was a comic tour de force, played pianissimo throughout.

Nearly 30 years had passed since Elisabeth Leonskaja’s previous appearance at the Proms, so it was a pleasure to welcome her back with a performance of Mozart’s Concerto No 22 in E-flat major, imbued with her characteristic excellence. Every note of her passage-work was made to count in her opening movement to which she brought a relaxed elegance, and her cadenza – Benjamin Britten’s response to Sviatoslav Richter’s request – was at once playful and teasingly exploratory. We were reminded that Richter had been Leonskaja’s mentor in her monumental approach to Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, given in a chamber concert at the Cadogan Hall. The most refreshing this about this Georgian-born pianist is the total lack of vanity in her playing.

Jeremy Denk doubled up his Royal Albert Hall Prom with a Cadogan appearance in which he played Scriabin’s Black Mass Piano Sonata (Op 68) with subdued menace, Bartok’s Piano Sonata (Sz 80) with pumping peasant energy, and prefaced Beethoven’s Sonata No 32, Op 111 with a two- minute commentary which shed more light on that supreme mystery than many a full – length lecture has done. A few days later, Denk was the soloist in Henry Cowell’s Piano Concerto, in which he was obliged to spend most of the time hitting the keyboard with his forearms and elbows, thus producing Cowell’s trademark note-clusters. This work’s rare outing proved a revelation. One might have expected the result to be shambolic, but the reverse was the case: with the orchestra playing tonally and the piano in seeming opposition, the result was highly organised and strikingly lyrical.

We can always rely on Yuja Wang to make a theatrical entrance, and sure enough, here she was in a ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ scarlet ball gown. However, when she got down to work on Bartok’s Piano Concerto No 2 she made this technically daunting piece seem as relaxed as a walk in the park, turning her own pages while never missing a note of her unbroken chains of two hand melody; I’ve heard more poetic accounts of it, but Yuja’s was still a stunning performance.

Impressive too was Marc-Andre Hamelin’s performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, written for the war-wounded but indomitable Paul Wittgenstein. The composer’s intention had been to create a texture no thinner than that of a part written for two hands, and Hamelin brilliantly vindicated that intention. Then, bringing his own right hand into play, he gave a majestic Debussy encore.

The same composer’s charmingly jazz-influenced Piano Concerto in G major was dispatched with idiomatic grace by Jean-Efflam Bavouzer.

No proms season is complete without Mitsuko Uchida, and this year she played Schoneberg’s Piano Concerto, Op 42, a deceptive work in that its surface modernism conceals a Mozartian core. Uchida’s cadenzas were by turns virtuosic and pensive. Her encire – which took us all off-guard – was the second of Schoenberg’s gnomic Opus 19 pieces, 50 seconds of minimalist pointillism.

There is nobody better than Nikolai Lugansky to officiate in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, given that the orchestra was the St Peterburg Philharmonic under Yuri Termikanov’s direction: this superb Russian pianist has all the power and passion required, as well as reserves of delicacy needed for the dreamy Adagio.

‘The most refreshing thing about Elisabeth Leonskaja is the total lack of vanity in her playing’

Finally – and a superb ending at that – the perfect pianist to star in the Last Night of the Proms (offsetting the evening’s obligatory vulgarities) was Benjamin Grosvenor, whose scintillating performance of Shostakovich’s delightful Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor was complemented by his equally scintillating bursts of boogie and stride in the let-it-all-hang out second half.

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