Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The Chetham's Recitals 2007: Part 3

20 August, 1.15 pm

A mix-up in timing on my part caused me to miss a sizeable chunk of the recital by the Russian Dina Parakhina – my loss. By the time I hurried to at Whiteley Hall, she was well into Brahms’ Handel Variations (Op.24) Like the archetypal Russian pianist, she has a rock-solid and quite dazzling technique that easily surmounted the multitudes of notes flung at her from the score. There was playfulness in the “music-box” variation and the galumphing build-up to the fugue drew premature applause from the clearly enthused audience. The valedictory fugue itself – a triumph in polyphonic writing and virtuoso playing - capped a performance of the highest order.

More of the same distinguished Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations (Op.42), the Russian composer’s final solo piano work. The manner in which she coloured each variation was admirable, with the magnificent D flat major variation (surely a preparatory study for its famous counterpart in the Paganini Rhapsody) radiating glints of gold. Rachmaninov’s Melodie (Op.3 No.3) - in its florid and far more difficult revision of the original - was a most elegant and wonderful way to end the recital.

20 August, 7.00 pm

Radoslav Kvapil could be hailed the patron saint of Czech piano music. Nobody, not even Rudolf Firkusny or Andras Schiff (despite being a Hungarian), has done more to further the piano music of Vorisek, Smetana, Dvorak, Suk, Janacek, Martinu and company. However, his recital of Dvorak’s eight Poetic Tone Pictures and a selection of Smetana’s Czech Dances – 14 pieces in all – could be accused of being too much of a good thing.

Imagine sitting through an evening of Dvorak’s complete Slavonic Dances or Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. A pleasant aural experience to be certain, but one could do with more variety. Despite this, Dvorak’s efforts can be delightful at turns, and with Kvapil’s imaginative playing, even ravishing. At the Old Castle has melancholy and a quiet elegance that looks ahead to Janacek. The folksy Toying, Peasant’s Ballade, Reverie, Furiant and Serenade were all variants of Slavonic Dances. My least favourite piece, At a Hero’s Grave, a requiem cast in solemn C minor, was thick with chords and tended to go on for a bit.

When there are titles like Stamp Dance, Stepping Round, Hopping Dance and Neighbour’s Dance, there had better be some degree of variation applied to these Smetana pieces. Fortunately, Kvapil is the consummate master and specialist. The first had bagpipe effects, Bartokian octaves and chords, building up to a wild verbunkos (recruiting dance) of some kind. Grainger would have appreciated the clog-dance of the second, while the third was the very fast Slavonic dance in the best Dvorakian mould. What about the neighbour? She sounded like a very sultry and nubile maiden indeed.

Encore time. After all that, Janacek’s A Blown Away Leaf (On the Overgrown Path) was very much a breath of fresh air.

20 August, 8.30 pm

The two powerhouse pianists are without their usual 4-hands 2-pianos partners this evening. Noriko Ogawa (away from Kathryn Stott) and Peter Donohoe (sans Martin Roscoe) would seem an odd couple, a “Beauty and a Beast” if you like, but they are surprisingly well matched. Ogawa’s stunning black and white striped evening gown (with black bow and matching stockings) with Donohoe’s all black attire certainly made an impression.

In Debussy’s En blanc et noir (In White and Black, most apt indeed), they evinced a wide range of colours while maintaining a limpid line in the music throughout. The second movement, a requiem for French War dead began with untainted simplicity, and the pulse quickened with the quote from A Mighty Fortress is Our Lord (ironically a symbol of Teutonic aggression) before resolving with the tolling of bells.

Mozart’s popular Sonata in D major (K.448) was a model of precision and muscularity, yet in its prestidigitations, there was a fleet-fingered lightness. The slow movement unfolded ever so lovingly that the insouciant lilt of the Rondo that followed came as a surprise. There was also an unexpected jazziness to the playing that added a spring to the step before the inevitable climaxes. A very satisfying performance overall.

Then came the Second Suite (Op.17) by Rachmaninov, one of the three adrenaline-inducing rushes that came post-depression (the other two being the Second Piano Concerto and Cello Sonata). The duo encountered coordination problems in the opening Alla marcia, with some measures going off kilter while trying hard not to sound percussive or militant. Things improved in the vertiginous Waltz and the smouldering Romance, while the final Tarantella erupted inexorably with volcanic energy. Rachmaninov’s tunes are to die for and the duo milked them for their worth.

This performance, greeted with vociferous acclaim, showed why Rachmaninov is ever so popular: he gives listeners more musical orgasms than any other composer. Two encores – Debussy’s En bateau (Petite Suite) and Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.6 – sent the audience racing to the bar happy.

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