Pianist John-Paul Muir at Waikanae

Beethoven: Sonata No.24 in F sharp, Op.78 ‘A Thérèse’; Chopin: Barcarolle, Op.60; Beethoven: Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109; Liszt: Funérailles and Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 11 July 2010, 2.30pm

A well-filled Memorial Hall enjoyed a treat of poetry on the piano.

John-Paul Muir is young, but in total command of the piano. He makes the instrument his own, and he has thought a lot about his interpretations. He played entirely without the scores in front of him.

A very slow start to the first Beethoven sonata made it all the more dramatic. Muir’s playing featured gorgeous pianissimos such as some pianists never achieve. He has a light touch when required, and knows how to achieve a lovely legato. But he can certainly turn on the vivace with no technical problems. One or two fluffs in his playing were really of no consequence. It was set in a difficult key, with six sharps. This is one of the composer’s shorter sonatas, but the pianist gave it plenty of character.

The Chopin piece was played very expressively, strong and characterful when that was needed. The description in the programme note led one into the feeling of being in a gondola at night. This, and the other excellent programme notes, were written by the performer.

Again, Muir’s sensitive playing was most rewarding. I was rarely conscious of the pedal, which means the pedalling was always done tastefully, and not overdone as some do.

The later Beethoven sonata has a great deal of difficult passage work in the first two movements, followed by a gorgeous melody opening the last movement, followed by six variations and finally a restatement of the theme. Muir’s technique was entirely at the service of the music, and he fully exploited the lyricism, though powerful when required to be.

The stillness of Muir’s playing of the theme of the third movement was something wonderful, followed by the slow and dreamy first variation. The syncopated second variation was delicately and deliciously managed. In this as in the other larger works, one could perceive that the pianist had the concept of the architecture of the whole.

The playing of the last variation was masterful, at great speed, but the melody was always brought out.

Lisztian loquacity leaves me lukewarm. As I heard someone say on the radio recently ‘He usually outstays his welcome.’ But Muir invested these pieces with poetry, too. The first piece was played with great feeling; delicate and dominating by turns, its contrasts maintained the interest.

The piece that followed began with the melody in the left hand while the right hand shimmered an accompaniment. The melody swapped thereafter between right and left hands. Muir had plenty of strength when it was needed, but the lightness of his playing at times was like the amazingly light sponge-cake I had eaten at morning tea after church that very day: light but never indistinct.

It is a long time since I have had so much pleasure from a piano recital. His skill, taste and musical acuity are a credit to his teacher at Auckland, Rae de Lisle. 

John-Paul,  winner of the recent Kerikeri International Piano Competition, goes to London in September to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.  His teacher will be Senior Professor Joan Havill, who comes from Whanganui.

I am sure that John-Paul Muir’s talent and intelligence will lead him to a great future as a pianist, and that we will have many more opportunities to hear him play. 

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