Music in evocative spaces – Diedre Irons at Wellington Cathedral

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul presents:
EVOCATIONS – Piano Recital Series at the Cathedral

Diedre Irons (piano)

BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata No.23 in F Minor Op.57 “Appassionata”
SCHUBERT – Moments Musicaux 1-6 D.780
CHOPIN – Ballade No.1 in G Minor, Op.23

Wellington Cathedral, Molesworth St., Wgtn

Friday 17th October, 2014

“Piano music in a vast space” read the heading on the programme sheet which we were given at the concert – and it certainly was that! In fact, I had wondered beforehand regarding the efficacy of performing a piano recital at all in such an environment, and certainly in respect of some of the repertoire – the “Appassionata?… on earth?….all those notes!……

As well, I remembered reading about some wag coming up to a young composer whose new work was being performed in some cavernous place like London’s Royal Albert Hall, clapping him on the back and saying, “Well done! – most new works these days are heard only once – but at least getting your work played in here means…..” To be honest, it was a bit like that in Wellington Cathedral for Diedre Irons’ masterly performance of one of Beethoven’s most titanic works – we were able to hear – and hear – and hear……

To a newcomer to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, the experience of the recital in the Cathedral would have, in places, been enchanting, an awakening of hitherto unsuspected ghost-voices, perhaps those of the work’s interpreters down the years, come to the concert to add their particular tones to those of the “live” pianist’s activations. The work’s very opening had that same haunted acoustic quality, as did much of the slow movement’s theme and variations. In fact, by a process of gradation our ears attuned themselves to the gradually agglomerating sounds, coping with this state of things better than with the sudden and precipitate dynamic contrasts whose inherent violence was made thunderous in those reverberant spaces.

Quicker passages soon became jumbled on a superficial level, though even there, Beethoven’s direct harmonic style of writing meant that there was often a kind of cumulative harmonic effect set up, making for resplendent cadences! Nowhere was this more so than in the final pages of the work’s coda, where the F Minor harmonies cascaded towards us with the force of a dam breaking apart and flooding us with sound.

As for the performance, I was freshly riveted by Diedre Irons’ dark, brooding and big-boned approach to the music throughout the first movement. From the start she set out to use what seemed to be in theory an intractable acoustic to its best advantage – creating a halo of resonance around the misterioso-like opening, then evoking the thunder-gods from the cavernous spaces with black, implacable piano tones. One still noticed a wealth of detail from the gentler sequences, like patches of mountain flower between the imposing crags – details were not so much obscured by the reverberation as elongated and amplified, the result being a plethora of revisited tones and figurations, all contributing to what seemed like an ever-burgeoning effect.

It was a performance constantly awash with harmonies, oceanic rather than granite-like – in a sense it was a kind of reversal in effect of Liszt’s renowned piano transcriptions of the composer’s symphonies for solo piano, an amplification rather than a reduction. The pianist made the most of the richness of sound in the gentler major-key sequences, with gorgeously orchestral left-handed murmurings beneath the arpeggio-like melody. The lovely right-hand trills here sounded like rippling cascades, the playing unhesitatingly picturesque and pastoral-like, creating whole worlds in between the outbursts of fierce energy and dark purpose.

Just before the first movement’s coda, the pianist took her time with the emphatic, tumbling figurations, allowing the reference to the contemporaneous Fifth Symphony to clearly make its effect, before the concluding section exploded urgently and excitingly, but quickly running its course and returning to a kind of brooding, unsatisfied state of things. No time was wasted before the second movement began, the theme rich and alive, the tones not sculpted, but beautifully sung, the melody given all kinds of dynamic shadings and emphases. The “alternating chords” variation was nicely shaped, while the sweetness of the figurations of the following section became something so gratefully, almost sacramentally grasped at the end – heart-warming playing!

Only the final variation seemed to suffer from the reverberations, the playfulness apparent but the detail often lost in the swirl of tones – one had to listen first-time to the notes and not reflect on them, because the acoustic often got in first again with the echo-effect! At the climax everything properly “peaked”, and then was so easefully “knitted back” to the opening theme, the playing very Schubertian, I thought, in the way that the pianist made the bass theme “talk” with the treble – such a sense of inter-connectedness! After this, the finale was a molten whirl, though Diedre Irons’ incisive touch allowed plenty of thematic detail to get through, even if the middle voices tended to be swamped by the sound-torrents.

I liked the pianist’s reliance on strength and momentum rather than speed, the phrasings spaced out within the music’s pulsing, giving the notes plenty of space and emphasis, but keeping the focus taut, making for an incredible cumulative effect – understandably in the present context, the final repeat was not taken, the pianist instead resolutely driving the music towards the presto coda. Here it seemed the very elements were at work, the swirling figurations of the treble furiously sweeping up and down over the sonorous, clanging bell-like grandeur of the lower tones, strong and implacable. And what a release those final arpeggiated figures achieved here, the stuff of molten power and implacable presence.

Great programming, here, with the next piece! – I often think of Schubert as being a kind of foil to Beethoven, the former’s music seeming to say to the latter’s, “Yes, but you might also look at things this way…..”. Completely different to the “Appassionata” in scope and mood, Schubert’s work “Six Moment Musicaux” amply demonstrates an alternative way of treating and and presenting thematic material. Those bold, angular yodelling figures at the very beginning of the opening C Major piece are handled by their composer with a droll, occasionally quirky touch that largely maintains the music’s individual character – as opposed to Beethoven’s assiduous hammering-out and moulding of his themes. As for the performance, there could have been an entirely different pianist at work, here, in the Schubert – much of the opening was played by Diedre Irons in a spontaneous-sounding recitative-like manner, everything coloured and shaped by her playfulness and lightness of touch.

The piece’s “trio” section saw ease and grace kept to the fore, the “echoing” calls floated with utter nonchalance across what I’ve always previously thought of as crepuscular landscapes – here the playing seemed to suggest morning hues and gentle country sports, the various fanfare-like figurations far less laden and more contented in character. The Andantino worked beautifully, here, the ambience both supporting the pianist’s legato phrasing and enhancing her subtle weightings and colorings. And the Hungarian-like third-movement’s limpid, dance-like motions were enchanting, particularly the smile on the music’s face at the change to the major just before the end.

I did think the acoustic all but defeated the busy detailings in the Moderato which followed, though the piece’s middle section established its Janus-faced character strongly, particularly the furrowed-brow minor-key sequence. As for the stormy Allegro Vivace, Irons “went for it”, filling the Cathedral’s spaces with sound and fury with broad brush-strokes of agitated tones. Compensating for these tempestuous outbursts was the final Allegretto, a proper envoy-like piece, rather like “The Poet Speaks” in Schumann’s “Kinderscenen”, here most eloquently phrased and sounded, but also in places drawing parallels of figuration with Schubert’s great B-flat Sonata’s first movement.

This hour-long recital (all too brief a time!) was concluded with some Chopin, his Ballade No.1 in G Minor – fascinating to be able to experience the work almost cheek-by-jowl with the “Appassionata”, albeit wryly and fancifully separated by the Schubert. As big-boned and demonstrative in places as was the Beethoven sonata, Chopin’s piece seemed here to revel in its romantic associations with literature and history, the music bringing out Diedre Irons’ natural story-telling instincts as surely as the Beethoven had demonstrated the expressive power of her organic thinking. Her performance recalled for me her stunning playing of Liszt’s first Mephisto Waltz in the Ilott Theatre in 2004, shortly after she first came to Wellington to live.

Right from the declamatory opening one was drawn into the composer’s world of drama and spectacle – the opening melody so beautifully buoyed along by the left hand’s colourings and dynamic impulses, occasionally illuminated by flourishings that still managed to glint amid the laden acoustic – somehow, the pianist contrived to “float” details rather than allow them to submerge, an example being the repeated-octave note towards the melody’s end – enchanting! Though the more vigorous passages often got caught up in their own reverberations, the drive and focus of the initial phrases carried our receptivities through – again Irons used the weight of sound to hers and the music’s best advantage in places, opening up the throttle in places where the music’s harmonies had follow-through, and creating powerful results.

At the end I found myself thinking that it had all worked better than I thought it would, though I couldn’t help making a kind of “list” of pieces whose qualities would, I thought be beautifully enhanced by the cathedral’s ambience – parts of Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sure l’enfant Jésus” for instance, or the B Minor Prelude and Fugue from Book One of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” – thanks, however, to Diedre Irons’ marvellous playing, we got what we were given, literally with bells on! – a truly memorable experience.

PS. – Jian Liu is giving the next piano recital at the Cathedral on Friday 14th November

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