Delight and surprise – Piers Lane at Upper Hutt’s Classical Expressions

Piers Lane at Classical Expressions

FIELD – Nocturnes: No.5 in B-flat H. 37 / No 10 in E Minor H.46B / No.11 in E-flat H.56A

SCRIABIN – 24 Preludes Op.11 /┬áCHOPIN – Waltzes 1-17

Genesis Energy Theatre,

Expressions Arts and Entertainment Centre, Upper Hutt

Tuesday 25th October 2011

Though Piers Lane has been a frequent visitor to New Zealand I’d not heard him play before attending this recital. Naturally I was keen to confirm in my own mind the good things I’d heard various people report about his playing; and the recital’s first half seemed amply to confirm this impression. In the case of each composer (I knew some of Scriabin’s Piano Sonatas, but not his Preludes) the music was new to me, and the pianist’s unfailingly beautiful touch and richly-wrought inner voicing throughout each of the pieces seemed by turns to suit their character to perfection. But as can sometimes happen, the concert’s second half proved somewhat disappointing, compared with the first, as if by some strangely alchemic means everything had been altered. We were given seventeen of the Chopin Waltzes, the pianist breaking them up into groups and talking to his audience about salient points in the music before each bracket. To my surprise, Piers Lane took what appeared to me a kind of gung-ho approach to the music, somewhat at odds with the quote by Schumann reproduced in the program – “Aristocratic from the first note to the last”. Whatever was in the pianist’s mind, it was only intermittently aristocratic – some of it was presented with what seemed like an air of over-familiarity, even impatience in places, as if the music’s jewelled elegance had worn thin, exposing a kind of rough-and-ready base metal.

As Piers Lane worked his way through his groupings of the waltzes (I thought his spoken commentaries before each bracket interesting but made too frequently), the music’s elegance and poise seemed to gradually creep back into some of the playing, especially in the slower, more melancholic waltzes. Occasionally, one of the quicker ones, too, would “go” with a hiss and a roar, justifying Lane’s very direct approach – though I got the feeling that in such instances that particular item had been better “prepared”. An example was the famous “three-against-two” Waltz in A-flat Major Op.42, where Lane actually captured a lovely gossamer quality at speed, and delicately brought out the cross-rhythms in a thoroughly “finished” way, characterizing both quicker and slower sections of the music with enviable fluency. Another instance was the famous “Minute” Waltz, again played with plenty of technical aplomb, enabling the piece’s vertiginous quality its head while keeping its poise – lovely playing. Yet another success was the Waltz I’d first encountered in the ballet “Les Sylphides”, the C-sharp Minor Op.64 No.2, the sinuous melody of the “answering” measures replying to the wistful opening with ever-increasing energy and suggestiveness.I liked also the recitative-like middle section, very “juicily” characterized, before the pianist returned us to the world of doubt and gentle resolve which began the piece.

It will be gleaned from all of this that, punctuating my general air of disappointment throughout the second half of the concert there were occasional delights. Still, my overall impression remained of a kind of generalized and in places insufficiently-honed response to the music. However much an interpreter plays these pieces they ought not to sound routine, or, alternatively “beefed up” energy-wise at the expense of elegance. This was what seemed to happen with some of the better-known Waltzes, such as the much-loved Op.Post.E Minor work, the agitations conjured up by the pianist resulting in an unseemly scramble through the opening episode (Chopin wrote plenty of musical agitation into the notes themselves, which speaks when the piece is played with precision and clarity). The G-flat major Op.70 No.1 which followed I thought skittery and charmless, as though the pianist feared any charge of sentimentality in his approach, while the E Major Op.18 (another “Les Sylphides” introduction for me) suffered from the same brittleness of manner – energies generalized and details insufficiently polished.

Far better to concentrate on the first half of the pianist’s recital, which I thought was splendid, both as a conception and in execution, from beginning to end. Beginning with music by the Irish-born virtuoso pianist John Field, the man credited with writing the first “Nocturnes” for solo piano, Piers Lane played three such pieces, each of which seemed to strongly anticipate the more famous Nocturnes by Chopin. The pianist gave us a short spoken introduction to the music and to its composer, after which he delighted us by illustrating his remarks with playing of the utmost sensitivity. His sound-world for this music seemed to be one which was perfectly wrought between the hands, a richly-sonorous bass working in tandem with a singing right-hand line.

While not as adventurous harmonically as Chopin’s, Field’s pieces certainly had a “stand-alone” quality, the first (No.5 in B-flat) beginning with a melody which could have easily been written by the young Schumann, as Chopin, and featuring also a gentle sequence of Mendelssohn-like chords – a true precursor of the Romantic Age. The second Nocturne, No.10 in E Minor, featured a guitar-like accompaniment of a Chopin-like melody, with gentle flourishes at the end, Lane creating a nicely atmospheric soundscape. No.11 in E-flat brought the hands more closely together, melody and argpeggiated accompaniment almost merging as one in places, except where the melody ascends an octave. The music has a middle section which borders on heroic emotion, the right hand’s strong, deliberate line briefly courting glory, and then becalming again. Field’s intensities seemed to me on this showing to be melodic rather than harmonic, the line curved and shaped over the trajectories of endless arpeggiations, progressions which a lesser pianist might have responded to with some impatience – instead of, as here, sounded by Piers Lane with an ebb and flow of subtly-varied intensities.

The earliest music written by the Russian symbolist composer Alexander Scriabin (born in 1872) owes a good deal to Chopin – though Scriabin’s set of 24 Preludes Op.11 wasn’t completed until 1896, No.4 in E Minor dates from 1888, and is among the earliest of the composer’s surviving works. Scriabin organized his set along the lines of Chopin’s Preludes, a cycle of successive major tonalities a fifth apart on the sharp and flat side of the key of C, each piece paired with its relative minor. While a number of the pieces suggest allegiances to various influences upon the composer – Schumann in a number of the pieces, such as the questioning Allegretto A Minor (No.2), Chopin in the Lento E Minor (No.4) and the Andante Cantabile D Major (No.5), Liszt in the Misterioso B-flat Minor (No.16), and Rachmaninov in the massively grand Affetuoso E-flat Major (No.19) and the final D Minor Presto (No.24) – there are occasional precursors of the mature Scriabin, such as the ecstatic outpourings found in the opening Vivace C Major (No.1)and the Andante D-sharp Minor (No.10), and the pictorial contrasts of calm and storm which characterize the Andante G-sharp Minor (No.12).

I couldn’t have imagined a more atmospheric, richly-conceived performance of these works as Piers Lane gave us – what impressed me most of all (confirmed by a friend sitting elsewhere in the audience whom I spoke with at the interval) was the unerring focus of the pianist’s touch throughout, creating tones whose translucence allowed both clarity and colour at all times. Looking through my notes recalls my constant delight at the SOUND of it all, and the ease with which Lane evoked the music’s myriads of characterful moods, and, just as readily, let each one go in favour of newly-formed impressions.

There were too many moments worthy of specific mention, except that, as stated above I was struck by how his beautifully-coloured musical focus brought out in Scriabin’s youthful pieces what seemed to be something of the spirit of Schumann’s quixotic world, echoing the latter’s questioning, ambivalent vignettes of emotion in places such as the B-flat Major Andante (No.21) and its companion, the Lento G Minor (No.22). But the important thing was Lane’s ability to sustain the musical argument throughout the whole of the set, like a journey through an intensely poetic landscape, with a guide whose sensibilities enabled the music to speak with its full range of expressive force.

I understand Piers Lane has recorded all of Scriabin’s Preludes (he wrote numerous sets of them following this one, totalling nearly ninety individual pieces) on a two-disc Hyperion issue, which, in the wake of this recital, I shall be sorely tempted to investigate. The pianist’s Chopin-playing remains a puzzle, to my mind, but one I’m happy for the moment to put aside in favour of my recollections of his Field and Scriabin, which for me were this recital’s very great pleasures.

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