Pianist Sonja Radojkovic at Lower Hutt – tempestuous, erratic, inspirational

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:

BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata in C Major Op.53 “Waldstein”
BRAHMS – Variations on a Theme of Paganini Op.35 (Book Two)
SCHUMANN – Etudes Symphoniques Op.13
DEBUSSY – Excerpts from “Children’s Corner” Suite

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Tuesday, 22nd August, 2013

I’ve deliberately let more than a few days pass before attempting to set down my thoughts regarding what I heard at Serbian pianist Sonja Radojkovic’s recent Lower Hutt piano recital. Even now I’m not sure of being able to do the event full justice, but the Law of Diminished Returns will undoubtedly kick in and play havoc with memory if I wait too much longer.

The pianist was supposed to play in Lower Hutt earlier this year, but ill health intervened, causing her to cancel her scheduled visit.  Radojkovic had visited New Zealand before in 2003, and caused something of a minor sensation, judging by the reviews she received from various quarters – hence the initial disappointment at her cancellation this time round. She was obviously determined to come and make good her original intentions, however, so that, some months later, here she was, as promised.

Given the somewhat impromptu circumstances it wasn’t surprising that the Little Theatre at Lower Hutt was only half-full – but it was a good enough assemblage to raise a suitable response to an artist who’d obviously taken time and trouble to get here to play. I’d heard her interviewed on the radio beforehand, though perhaps because of her Serbian origins the exchanges seemed to be mostly about the political situation in Central Europe rather than exploring in depth any musical or pianistic philosophies.

I did get some idea from the interview of her avowed devotion to the music of Chopin – even though the promised program contained none of his music. As it turned out, her identification with that composer’s works made a significant, even vital contribution to the evening’s music-making, more of which in due course. At the outset we were anticipating the very different worlds of Beethoven and Brahms, with an interestingly-contrasted Schumann-and-Debussy bracket after the interval.

From the beginning Radojkovic’s imposing physical presence seemed to dominate the piano and the stage – just a few notes into the Waldstein Sonata’s opening and we found ourselves plunged into a world of “Sturm und Drang”, playing which had an urgency and a drive, even if the figurations were occasionally uneven, with notes scattered, Schnabel-like, across the spectrum in places (pianist Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) was an inspirational interpreter of Beethoven who frequently pushed the music to realms beyond his technical capabilities, to thrilling, if occasionally chaotic effect!).

Frequently Radojkovic’s left hand simply drowned out the right in a torrent of sound, though perhaps the piano’s definite lack of “ring” here could have been partly to blame for the inbalance. It also seemed part and parcel of her interpretation – very misty and romantic, exciting but unpredictable, with accents unexpectedly “barbed”, and snapping at you without warning.

Obviously something of the thunder and wildness of the old piano gods still lurked in this woman’s being – elegant it was not, but instead proclaimed itself as unashamedly fiery and romantic. Interestingly the slow movement in Radojkovic’s hands was brooding and restless, the theme never becoming song, but remaining charged and declamatory, pushed along to the point of what felt for this listener like impatience in places, though others might have relished the on-going tensions.

It was in the finale that I simply had to part company with her – again, her left hand frequently near-submerged the right, which often exhibited a tendency to snatch at the phrasings and move them along faster than her technique would stand – the big exchanges between hands in triplets against the octave theme went almost completely off the rails, and there was no mood-change when the grand, should-have-been-majestic A-flat statement of the finale’s theme came – here it was unceremoniously moved through as part of the same all-purpose whirlwind, to hectoring and ill-tempered effect. And the recapitulation of the opening was the same – Beethoven’s music, I thought, was here given an overdose of haste, incessant drive and marked impatience.

With the aforementioned Schnabel’s occasionally erratic playing, there was nevertheless, at all times, a feeling of shape and form and differentiation, even amidst the most hair-raising episodes of technical carnage. Here in the Waldstein’s finale I felt Radojkovic simply rode roughshod over much of the music – in fact to the point where she sounded, purely and simply, insufficiently prepared.

How on earth, I thought, was she going to cope with the far more out-and-out virtuosic keyboard writing in Brahms’s Paganini Variations? Well, the quicker variations were all stormily and splashily played, while the more poetic and introspective ones were extremely characterful, winsome, flowing and lovely. Occasionally she used too much pedal to generate great washes of sound, reminding me in places of the kind of effect got by the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, heard ”live” when having one of his less technically secure days.

Conversely, I loved her lilting way with the fourth, major-key variation, and also with the delicately-etched-in No.8. She kept her best playing, I thought, for these more lyrical, poetic episodes, the twelfth variation being another example of her ability to rhapsodize in a completely natural and flowing way. But much of the rest was an amalgam of grandeur, excitement, agitation, and just plain noise, with an alarming number of mis-hits – surely too many for a player working at this performance level?

I had been looking forward to the prospect of hearing one of my favourite sets of romantic piano variations, Schumann’s Op.13 Etudes Symphoniques, before the concert – but was now not so sure! Radojkovic did begin promisingly, playing the theme at the beginning with great freedom, the chord progressions elastic and spontaneously-sounded, with the bass sonorities again emphasised.

However, once the variations began, the same disfiguing elements which had bedevilled her playing up to that point in the recital were unfortunately revisited. In the case of each variation she played no repeats, which for me reduced the work’s stature and grandeur – moreover, she tended to “clip” phrase-notes, and hurry through figurations in places where I was expecting her to expand, which further compressed the work’s scale. And that tyrannical left hand began to cause me to wince every time it threatened to obliterate the right hand’s thematic lines.

It was only the slower, second-to-last variation that gave me any pleasure throughout the rest of the work – my notes instead contain remarks such as “an unholy scramble!”, or “All bluster and thunder”, and “Bashes through and approximates wildly!” I couldn’t believe the extent to which I was writing these things about a professional musician. One expects a smattering of wrong notes from a performer in any public piano recital, but Radojkovic’s “hit-and-miss” ratio felt simply too high for comfort.

Parts of Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite responded to Radojkovic’s freely impressionistic way with the music, though the very opening theme of “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” had no sense of shape – its dreamy middle section was, however, beautifully realised, even if the concluding accelerando became something of a scramble, with pile-driven final chords.

More successful were “Jumbo’s Lullaby” and “Serenade for the Doll”, each in its own way delicately played and nicely contrasted. “The Snow is Dancing” also had its moments, though surely its repeated-note sequence was far too vehemently presented. And “The Little Shepherd”, despite some lovely touches, sounded, to my ears too fast, too volatile, in places – why would one want to play such music so impatiently?

As for the subject of the famous “Golliwog’s Cakewalk”, I thought, here, a more unpleasant ruffian never trod the boards – sharp-toned and aggressive-sounding, the music made a thoroughly bad-tempered and out-of-sorts impression.

And that was that – or rather, it would have been had not Radojkovic announced that she would like to play some Chopin for us as an encore, telling us in heavily-accented English that he was her favourite composer. We had barely settled back down in our seats before the opening notes of the well-known Op.66 Fantasie-Impromptu rang out from the keyboard – and suddenly, the music-making was transformed.

Here was much of the same impulsiveness and volatility that we’d heard throughout the evening, but with the melodic lines and counterpoints having a shape and coherence hitherto obscured – now, the music seemed properly lived-with, and completely under the pianist’s fingers. The sounds readily conveyed a real sense of excitement contrasted with repose, and effectively characterising by turns the music’s portrayals of both adventurer and dreamer.

This was playing which brought to my mind the grand manner of some of those famous old pianists of the 78rpm recording era, giving us something unique and treasurable, and making complete sense of whatever. I confess to being startled by the transformation – with Chopin’s music acting as a kind of catalyst, Radojkovic had suddenly created order from the previous chaos before us.It was like the turning over of a new leaf, something almost alchemic in effect, and perhaps beyond understanding (I’m trying, here, to work my way towards at least a modicum of the same!)…

After gob-smacking us with her playing of the Fantasie-Impromptu, Radojkovic then delighted us with the Waltz in C-sharp Minor (Op.64 No.2), again giving us a strongly-characterised reading, the music’s melancholic and quixotic elements rendered with tingling immediacy and near-perfect detailing. We even forgave her a touch of showmanship at the final reprise of the “running down the stairs” sequences, here tossed off  at speed with the nonchalance of any old-time pianistic “great” one might care to name.

So, honour was at least in part restored at the recital’s end by this remarkable pianist – whether her playing throughout much of the evening was the result of being less-than-properly prepared, or plagued by non-musical pressures such as jet-lag, I found it difficult to decide.

What’s certain is that, on the strength of that Chopin-playing, I would like very much to hear Radojkovic again, either in an all-Chopin recital, or in music that draws from her the same intensities of ownership and identification and attention to detail – here, for just a few minutes, those kinds of intensities took us with her into realms inhabited by beauties and profundities associated with things treasurable and unforgettable.









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