Jeffrey Grice – “interprète extraordinaire” at the NZSM

Te Kōkī – New Zealand School of Music presents:
Piano recital by Jeffrey Grice

Gounod / Liszt – Hymne à Sainte Cécile
Lucien Johnson – To the sea (Shimmer – Scuttle – Still)
Debussy – Estampes
Jenny McLeod – Tone Clock Piece no 5 (Vive Messiaen)
Lilburn – Sonatina No.2 / Ravel – Sonatine
Chopin – 24 Preludes Op. 28

Jeffrey Grice (piano)

Adam Concert Room, NZ School of Music,

Kelburn, Wellington

 Monday 7th April, 2014

Christchurch-born Jeffrey Grice studied with Janetta McStay and Brian Sayer at Auckland University, before winning a bursary in 1976 to study in France with Yvonne Loriod and Germaine Mounier. Since that time he has mostly lived in or been closely associated with France, though he’s kept his antipodean connections humming with regular advocacy of new works by both Australian and New Zealand composers.

Grice’s recent Adam Concert Room recital demonstrated those sympathies amply, with performances of two works which had in the past been premiered by the pianist – Lucien Johnson’s To the Sea, and Jenny McLeod’s Tone-Clock No.5 (Vive Messiaen) – as well as a more “established” piece by a New Zealand composer, Douglas Lilburn’s Sonatina No.2.

Well might this recital have been called “Living Echoes” with such things in mind – but the remainder of the programme’s items took on much the same qualities of freshness and immediacy throughout what I considered to be an evening’s remarkable music-making. One had an almost palpable sense of the pianist spontaneously reliving each of the composers’ actual creative processes, so that the music leapt, burst, burgeoned, floated, trickled or resounded from the sometimes metaphorical music-pages as if for the first time.

I imagined that what we listeners experienced was akin to the kind of playing that would have proliferated in an earlier age which more readily accepted, and, indeed, expected Beethoven’s famous attributed dictum – “the idea counts more than its execution” – to be observed in performance. Not that Grice’s actual execution of the notes was in any way deficient or insufficient in quality to realize the music – in fact, the reverse was the case, with technical gestures and processes seemingly wrought by the music at every stage, rather than simply “applied” from without. It was playing which repeatedly made one ask “why?” and “why not?”, instead of “how?”

Sensing that words are beginning to fail me, here, I shall move quickly onto the content of the actual program, some of which has already been touched upon. Whether by accident, instinct or design, Grice’s first item brought us face-to-face with a composer whose skill as a performer was regarded by many as that of one of the greatest of recreative artists of all time, Franz Liszt.

Perhaps one’s initial reaction to the latter’s “arrangement” of Charles Gounod’s violin-and-piano piece Hymne à Sainte Cécile might well be along the somewhat reproving lines of “Gounod, hi-jacked by Liszt!” – but as the energies and intensities of Liszt’s elaborations upon Gounod’s music expanded and flourished, a kind of radiance began to cast its glow over the sounds and associated resonances, a veritable beatification of the rather plain original, proclaiming the process to be the work of a genius.

I thought Grice’s playing all-encompassing in its range of expression generated not only on the saint’s, but on the composers’ behalf, from the “charged” softly-brushed fingerwork of the prayerful opening, to the orchestral grandeur of the concluding declamations. Gounod himself may have never heard the work in its Lisztian form, but he would surely have approved of its new-found expansiveness and enlargement of expression.

A marvellous contrast of mood came with New Zealand -born, sometimes French-domiciled jazz composer Lucien Johnson’s three-part work from 2007 To the Sea, with its three subtitled parts Shimmer, Scuttle, Still. The opening brought both distant and more immediate kinds of sonorities between the hands, trills and repeated notes in the treble and shifting shadow-chords in the bass, the whole enlivened occasionally by scintillations of light and energy,

Scuttle was more insistent, its agitations expressed through tremolandi and ostinati-like figurations, the patternings further energizing the harmonies and and textures, with a particularly volatile, free-wheeling right hand bringing plenty of surface excitement to the soundscape. Dramatic then, indeed, was the change to Still, everything at once cut adrift amid cool, spacious chords and occasional widely-spaced leaps, rather like fish suddenly jumping from still waters – the delicious cluster-chords amid the ambient spaces gently coloured the music’s evocations of timelessness.

One could go on enumerating the manifold delights of the recital’s remaining performances and finish up with a lengthy treatise somewhat beyond this review’s scope, one perhaps taking longer to read than the pianist took to play the music! With the exception of Grice’s revelatory presentation of the Chopin Op.28 Preludes, over which I need to hover and ponder and wonder anew at the recreative daring of it all, I can content myself, however regretfully, with snatches of impressions of the Debussy, Jenny McLeod, Lilburn and Ravel items.

Debussy’s Estampes was a miracle of different evocations, the first of the three parts, “Pagodes”, delivered rapidly and mistily, seeming almost overpedalled in effect at first, but making its point all too clearly by comparison with the arresting surge of focused tone from what one imagined to be the largest of the gamelan instruments the piano was imitating. In “La Soirée dans Grenade”, the “Habanera rhythm carried all before it, but with the utmost flexibility of line and while maintaining a sultry, hypnotic atmosphere – Grice managed the mutterings and impetuous scamperings of the ad.lib. guitar passages with perfect ease and fluidity. Finally, with “Jardins sous la Pluie”, the playing resembled an impressionistic blur, the lightest of touches producing an almost alchemic effect, with pianistic detail brushed in amid the fantastic flourishes – exhilarating!

Jenny McLeod’s “Messiaenic” tribute from the fifth piece of her Tone Clock series had an engaging “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” aspect, the piece coming almost straight out of the French composer’s “Catalogue d’ Oiseaux”, and having a wonderful clamour alternating with sequences evoking nicely “charged ” silences. There were connections echoing connections when Grice played a piece by Douglas Lilburn, McLeod’s composition teacher, to follow –  this was Lilburn’s Sonatina No.2, a work whose exquisitely-voiced evocations readily bore out the pianist’s contention that Lilburn subliminally echoed impulses found in Ravel’s Sonatine – Grice played for us a particular figuration which Lilburn seemed to have uncannily “copied” from Ravel, in spirit if not exactly in letter.

In Grice’s characteristically fleet-of-finger performance of the French work, I confess to missing, in the first movement, that vein of melancholy which peers out as do eyes from behind a glittering mask, in much of Ravel’s music. The remaining two movements were, however, beautifully paced, the pianist again favouring a very “ambient” keyboard texture, whose focus cleared for the more forceful animations, with magnificently cascading passages (Grice had a second “go” at the opening of the final headlong plunge, which meant that, in the frisson of this moment we unexpectedly got double the pleasure!)…..

As for the Chopin Preludes, it took only a few seconds of the opening to indicate that the pianist was to give us something special and distinctive, his shaping of the piece’s dynamics alive with possibilities, and the upward-thrusting arpeggiated rhythms so impulsively and freely figured. Both Hans von Bülow and Alfred Cortot somewhat notoriously “named” each of the Preludes, doing literally what interpreters of this music worth their salt would do anyway, however subjectively or otherwise – draw from each piece a poetic, theatrical or dramatic idea which fuses performance and interpreter with these representations of the music’s essence.

It seemed to me that Grice took absolutely nothing for granted, neither notes nor pauses between, as if he was freshly rediscovering the pieces and expressing his delight in the process of engagement with them. Resisting the temptation to revisit my pleasure at every single one of his individual explorations, I’ll regretfully content myself with a handful of instances, remarking firstly, however, on the spontaneously-wrought fusion of many of the pieces, progressions which seemed perfectly organic and natural as they occurred.

To be absolutely truthful, singling out individual Preludes for comment from this performance feels akin to creating a Chopinesque equivalent of Wagner’s “bleeding chunks” from his operas, so organic was Grice’s thinking throughout the work. Still, I can’t abide the thought of not sharing my delight in moments such as the “dying fall” of the repeated chords in the well-known No.7 in A Major – Grice obviously siding with Cortot’s description of the music involving “memories floating like perfumes”, rather than Bülow’s “Polish dancer”. And the drama of contrast created by the following agitato suggests also Cortot’s description of an “internalized” tempest, something quite raw and gut-wrenching.

Grice brought to every piece a similar kind of “edge”, suggesting some kind of lurking fear or disturbed awareness of chaos or oblivion – even the relatively placid Preludes seemed “haunted” by either where the music had been, or what was to follow. By the time we came to the final trio of pieces we were “well-tenderised” by the somewhat fraught nature of the various exchanges, with darkness either predominating or framing the more lucid episodes. So the G Minor No.22’s sombre, agitated angularities seemed “relieved” by the following F Major’s gently-flowing fluidity, the mood reminiscent of parts of Liszt’s “Suisse” book from his “Années de Pèlerinage”.

However, repose was banished by the set’s finale, appropriately marrying the Allegro appassionato marking with the key of D Minor, and with Grice’s total involvement in the “ordered chaos” of it all underlined by the rhythmic counterpointing of his feet on the floor in front of the pedals. A great downward cascade of notes at the piece’s end and a dark, brutal sounding of the note D brought the piece, the set and the recital to a properly sobering finish….after we gobsmacked folk in the audience had taken a few moments to draw breath once again, we were able to justly acclaim the achievement of both performer and composer – truly and deeply memorable!