Thursday, 17 March 2016

GOTTLIEB WALLISCH Piano Recital / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Tuesday (15 March 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 March 2016 with the title "Austro-German compositions take centrestage in moving piano recital". 

Austro-German compositions are the cornerstone of Western music, especially in the development of classical forms like the sonata, symphony and concerto. Its keyboard music is also an essential part of the repertoire, as amply demonstrated in the recital by Austrian pianist Gottlieb Wallisch. 

Where would we be without Beethoven? His early Sonata in B flat major (Op.22) opened the evening with a short flurry and resounding chords. Pianists often refer to this as his “little” B flat sonata, distinguishing it from the later and monumental Hammerklavier Sonata (Op.106), but there was little to suggest that in Wallisch's approach.

He crafted a big-boned and sonorous timbre, as the 1st movement was symphonic in scope, filled with bold and brassy effects. Yet this was not one of those loud single-dimensional readings, but filled with nuances and shadings in every phrase. The slow movement sang out like a lied, followed by the folksy Minuet of the 3rd movement, which had its own stormy central section. The finale's melody flowed unabated yet built up to a tempestuous high. Such abrupt dynamic upheavals are par for the course for Beethoven.

More diminutive in scope were his Bagatelles, the late Op.126 set of six being best examples of the German composer as a miniaturist. Each piece was varied in mood and colour, which Wallisch brought out with much care and detail. The contrasts between the chorale-like harmonies of No.3 and the roughhouse rumbles of No.4 were marked, the latter with its own interlude filled with  bagpipe effects and hurdy-gurdy drones.

The musical and spiritual kinships between Beethoven's Bagatelles and Schubert's Musical Moments are plain to see, but those could also be extended to the Austrian's Impromptus, which are slightly more extended essays on similar pithy ideas.

Wallisch brought a sense of freshness to the Four Impromptus Op.142, arguably the more technically demanding of two sets. His playing is of a cultivated kind, melding Viennese decorum with song-like countenance. The crossing over of hands in No.1, creating two separate voices, was like an intimate conversation between two lovers. Ice and hearts melted in the hymn-like chords of No.2, its familiar melody being one of Schubert's finest.

Fond memories of Salzburg's Hagen Quartet (which performed at this same venue exactly two weeks ago) returned in the Theme and Variations of No.3, based on the lovely entr'acte from Rosamunde. Far more difficult than it sounds, Wallisch made light of its tricky challenges, and this thread of virtuosity continued into the Hungarian-flavoured No.4, filled with repetitive rhythmic figurations and difficult scales.

That is what all those boring student exercises were for, and it was a pity that this excellent recital of how Viennese classics ought to be performed was not swamped with exam-obsessed piano students and their teachers. Wallisch's encore was Liszt's soulful transcription of Schubert's achingly beautiful Der Müller und der Bach from the song-cycle Die Schöne Müllerin. More exalted musicianship of this kind would be hard to find.   

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