Ludwig Treviranus returns to Upper Hutt for highly coloured recital of Beethoven and Mussorgsky

Ludwig Treviranus (piano)

Beethoven: Piano Sonata in C, Op 2 No 3; Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Genesis Energy Theatre, Expressions Arts Centre, Upper Hutt

Saturday 10 November, 8pm

The name Ludwig Treviranus came to my notice when he played in his last high school years in the Hutt Valley, before moving to study music under Rae de Lisle at Auckland University. At that stage there was already a certain flair, a feeling for the dramatic in music, and they were the characteristics most clearly evident in the two pieces he played on this short return visit from Sydney where he is teaching this year. Last year he completed a doctorate at the State University of Florida in Tallahassee, guided by New Zealand pianist Read Gainsford.

The C major sonata of Beethoven’s first published set of piano sonatas has more pointers to the future, his own future, than to the past of Haydn and Mozart’s keyboard works; and it was the vivid contrasts in tempo and dynamics, between the crisp staccato phrases and sudden shifts to lyrical passages, even within a few bars, that marked his playing most strongly.

The second theme of the first movement was enlivened in these ways, particularly with its rippling, ornamented arpeggios; his approach made coherent the somewhat surprising cadenza that Beethoven gave himself near the end.

The brevity of the third movement is always a surprise, and Treviranus succeeded in delivering that surprise, at the same time convincing us of its rightness. The whole was not without minor trip-ups and rushes of notes that were a bit blurred; nothing detracted however from the fleetness, strength and insight of his performance.

It was a somewhat short recital: all over, including his pithy, fluent introductions, in an hour and a half. Nevertheless, there was time for him to make a lively impression on the large audience through his demeanour, his air of friendliness and of course his easy comments on the music and its context.

The second part was given to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which he told us he had learned in his final year at Florida. To bring the music more vividly to life he had arranged for images of the five extant paintings by Hartmann, which were the inspiration of the music, to be projected on a screen behind the piano; the other five pieces were illustrated by appropriate paintings by others, including Van Gogh’s study of straining oxen, for Bydlo.  If you search the Internet you will find a lot of partly speculative information about other possible sources among the very large retrospective Hartmann exhibition in Saint Petersburg in 1874, as well as rather more insightful writing about the composer and the painter and the aesthetic climate of Russia in the 1870s.

One measure of a performance of this work is the conviction brought to the varying accounts of the Promenade that appear between our viewing of the works on the gallery walls.  Generally, the viewer was led on a thoughtful walk around the exhibition, without haste; his emotions in the music reflecting what he sees there: the slightly sinister Gnomes (or Gnomus) and a colourful, animated scene at the Tuileries. Then came the primitiveness of the lumbering oxen of Bydlo (a Polish cart drawn by a cow writes one commentator, a symbol depicting the oppressed Polish people whose country lay divided under the domination of Russia and Prussia throughout the 19th century) with its heavy emphasis on the alternating chords, unchanging in pace as they fade away into the distance.

Treviranus commands a huge dynamic range, which was called for to depict the two Jews, Goldenberg and Schmuyle; and in the sudden plunge into the Catacombs, here with the pictorial background of three blurred figures against a half-lit wall; it was one of the most evocative episodes.

And he captured the grandeur and the occasional fall into triviality in the last two pieces, Baba Yaga and The Great Gate of Kiev: that image of Hartmann’s architectural conception, never built, shows graphically how far traditional Russian visual arts were from the classically derived styles that had ruled in western Europe, and Mussorgsky’s music too takes its inspiration from that of the Russian peasant, finally merging in spirit with the Promenade. In all, Treviranus‘s studied avoidance of any too elegant or polished performance could be heard to conform successfully with what we could see projected on the screen.

The pianist plans to return to Wellington next year; though he is very interested in teaching, I hope he can make time to enlarge and polish his repertoire, especially the fields he demonstrated so promisingly this evening.


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