Schubert: Piano sonata in A, D 959; Gareth Farr: Sepuluh Jari; Schumann: Carnaval, Op 9; Godowski: Concert Paraphrase on Strauss’s ‘Wine, women and song’
Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall
Sunday 24 July 2011, 3pm
The middle of the second movement of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata should not really come as a surprise if you have listened openly to the very opening of the first movement. Not perhaps from just any pianist, but certainly from Michael Endres whose view is clear at once through the heavy, threatening, plain loud chords of the opening phase. Alternating shafts of sun with heavy threatening storm clouds: fortissimo and pianissimo; Schubert has absorbed all Beethoven’s awakening to the potential of the iron framed piano, and he quickly understood its ability to express visceral excitement and fear as well as man’s compulsion to seek peace and happiness. Endres imbued the sonata with drama and menace. His fleet and light descending arpeggios are not the airy flights that I’ve heard from some players, but warn us of what lies ahead.
I have to admit to finding some of Schubert’s major works overlong, burdened by too many repeats of themes, too little modified, and repeats of entire sections which have fulfilled their purpose through a single playing, but such was the impact of Endres’s dramatic gift that there seemed not a moment too long in the quarter-hour first movement.
So we have been warned of the likely character of the next movement even though the first ends in a singular air of content. From its very opening, Endres somehow invests the Andantino which he played a little quicker that some pianists do, with a feeling of unease. Nevertheless, the rhapsodic middle part though it begins pianissimo soon became more violent and tempestuous, more like an improvisation inspired by terror, more unrestrained than I can remember hearing it before. The opening mood returns but calm has not come, rather it’s despair, not just for the composer’s own plight but perhaps for the world.
It made the Scherzo so much harder to accommodate though, for it is hard to hear this a anything more than a typically dance-inspired interlude. How have we deserved this after the terrors of the Andantino?
Something of the answer lies in the Rondo which begins as rondo finales do, but in the middle again there’s a stormy passage that recalls the terrors of the second movement. But both the third and fourth movements are filled with such glorious melody and inspired by such intense vitality and courage that we can be persuaded that life is good and that Schubert will live into old age.
Endres has been professor of piano at Canterbury University for over a year and has taken an interest in New Zealand music.
Gareth Farr’s 1996 piano piece has established itself in the repertoire, and with justification. The roots of the opening phase, in the 19th century, are a comforting element, for one soon loses the way with music that strives for ‘originality’ at all costs. There’s a Brahmsian density, there are Russian emotional depths, and there’s also, as it goes along, Farr’s own voice, a voice that has somehow made the gamelan his own, and has found an authentic way to recreate it at the piano.
Most importantly, there’s more than a trace of melody or motif which is the vital recognition element that attracts further listenings.
Endres tackled it (this one with the score before him) with a gusto and bravura that perhaps turned it into a Lisztian travelogue. His playing persuaded me of its legitimacy.
Carnaval might well be Schumann’s most popular piece. It’s certainly one that I discovered early and whose technical impossibilities I have struggled with over the years. Was the opening of the Préambule too loud? Not to me; double forte means pretty loud, and the whole of this section is marked ff with nothing but crescendo marks until the third page when p and pp are to be found. The contrasts as Endres forged them were very rewarding and they sounded right to me. The emphatic forte chords in Pierrot were robustly planted into its otherwise calm promenade.
Carnaval is simply a brilliant sequence of infectious tunes in highly contrasted sketches and portraits of the unique creations that Schumann evoked from many aspects of his life and imaginings: in part from Italian commedia dell’arte, in part from creatures of German Romanticism, in part Schumann’s friends, loves and objects of admiration (Estrella, Chiarina, Chopin, Paganini), and his own inventions like Eusebius and Florestan, and the Davidsbund. And Papillons are recalled from his own similar suite of pieces, Op 2. As with much music that has some kind of programme or reference, the riddle is interesting but the solution is unimportant.
They all came off the page in vivid colours, filled with wit and boisterousness, with moments – some quite prolonged – of sentimentality-with-a-backbone (Eusebius), or mock grandeur. Rhythms were totally infectious and I felt that here was a German who felt a real affinity with Schumann (though Endres comes from southern Bavaria while Schumann was a Saxon).
The last item was one of those exercises in flamboyance and OTT virtuosity that actually surpasses the expectations even of the severest pedants. Most of the wonderful dances by Johann Strauss and many of those by his father and brothers are such that life might seem incomprehensible if they didn’t exist, like all great masterpieces. Wein,Weib und Gesang is one of the best Strauss waltzes; there are about eight great melodies which Godowski had great delight with, embellishing them impetuously, extravagantly, combining them into canons or counterpoints. Wonder if Godowski himself had anything of a melodic gift. If one doesn’t, what he did is the next best thing, and it would surprise me if Johann, in his Viennese grave, would have been anything but hugely delighted at the outrageous liberties taken, and he’d have loved Endres’s performance.
As if that wasn’t enough, we got an encore of more of the world’s irrepressible tunes from Gershwin’s Songbook.
In all it was a splendid recital that would have offered something to most classical music tastes.