Richard Mapp at St.Andrew’s in Wellington – piano-playing with a quality of connection

RICHARD MAPP – Piano Recital

J.S.BACH – Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Minor (WTC Bk.1 BWV 849)
KENNETH YOUNG – Five Pieces for Piano (2002) – No. 5
SCHUBERT – Three Piano Pieces D.946
FREDERIC CHOPIN –  Nocturne in C Minor Op.48 No. 1
OLIVIER MESSIAEN – Premiere communion de la vierge (No.11 of Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jesus)
JOHANNES BRAHMS – Seven Fantasies Op.116

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church

Sunday, September 2nd, 2018

Most intriguingly, the mere prospect of attending a piano recital by Richard Mapp gives rise to feelings within me of a kind of anticipation that I find difficult to explain, except with what seems like vague and insubstantial language, unable to properly grasp the essence of what gives my feelings any kind of actuality. But there’s a quality I’ve always felt in his playing that, in my experience of concert-going induces within the listener a more-than-usual urge to “connect” with the sounds he enables from his instrument, as if they’re given by him a certain “truth” or a whole-heartedness of utterance refreshingly out-of-the-ordinary.

Given that great music is almost  always better than it can be performed for various reasons – such as the phenomenon of musicians having to “refract” their own responses to this body of work in order to make it “sound”,  and that we all, as individuals, have unique responses to these sounds and their characteristics – there’s always going to be considerable divergence of opinion regarding the essences of what emerges from all of this, both played and heard!  These comments, therefore, are not set in stone, but as Keats observed, more “writ in water” – even so, I still find myself wanting to try and make some further sense of my impressions of Richard Mapp’s playing, which I hope will happen at least in part during the course of this review.

There’s no better way for a piano recital to begin than with the music of “Johann Sebastian – mighty Bach!!”, as writer and poet Dylan Thomas’s organ-playing character Organ Morgan declaims at one point, in the play “Under Milk Wood”. Contradictory though that statement might seem in the sense of hearing the music played on an instrument Bach didn’t REALLY know, his music does possess that quintessentially Baroque quality of ready and fluid transcription – the composer’s own work attests to that in a number of instances! Here, Richard Mapp successfully brought out all of the music’s grandeur, the opening of the Prelude unfurling all the purples and deep ceremonial resonances of the music’s solemn canonic statements, the playing at once full-toned and registering infinite shades of focus. As for the Fugue,  it steadily enunciated its shape and cornerstones before beginning its process of “growing” from what had gone before, the voices in concert seemingly very aware of one another, to the point of even “playing” for one another so as to make a concerted effort to push through the impediments and into the culminating sunlight.

The pianist somewhat wryly commented that his programming seemed to have placed the recital’s oldest and newest pieces cheek-by-jowl, but in the process had discovered certain “links” between them. This was Kenneth Young’s piece, of course, the fifth part of a work called “Five Pieces”, which was written for Michael Houstoun. A rich, chordal fabric (almost Messiaen-like) dominated the music’s opening, the progressions angular in places, but still pleasing. The music had plenty of “attitude”, but also generated something of the strength of a Baroque Master’s music, the writing severe, but coherent and cumulative, and leading to a heart-easing liquidity throughout a middle sequence, and then some swirling agitations leading to a climax of sorts. Out of the ensuing debris reappeared the opening chords, embedding themselves more deeply and richly this time around, and with a decorative counterpointing figure that rose upwards and became a kind of “landscaped benediction” it seemed, the phrases shifting and echoing briefly and chromatically. Would that we had heard the whole set…….

Recompense was, however, at hand with Mapp’s playing of Schubert’s enigmatic Three Piano Pieces D.946, works that the composer produced in a kind of “ferment” of activity during the last year of his life, 1828, along with the last three piano sonatas, the great String Quintet, and the song-cycle Schwanengesang. Arguably, too much has been romantically read into the circumstances surrounding the composer’s state of health throughout this time – though by this time syphilitic, Schubert, like Mozart, would not have expected that he would die so soon – and the moments of darkness and turmoil which are present in these works are balanced by occasional humour, quirkiness and high spirits. Each of the three pieces have disconcertingly contrasted moods, in line with the other works composed throughout this period, and present a kind of totality of emotion, an awareness of both light and dark, and a varied response to these states of being.

The opening Allegro assai conjured up some kind of dark “inner” pursuit, the music loaded with grim intent but never threatening from without, Mapp keeping the music’s swirling textures to the fore as much as he did the galloping rhythms. The music’s central sections were properly songful, but made of the same connective tissue of feeling as the opening, so that the parts related rather than contrasted, with no real “escape” from the darkness. So, when the galloping opening returned, the effect was like that of a dark dream refocused, with the pianist intensifying both trajectories and textures, filling the concluding silences with unease.

With the Allegretto which followed, we were seductively drawn further into the music’s world by Mapp’s heart-easing lyricism of expression – he gave the melodic trajectories elbow-rooms of space in which to breathe, the writing seemingly unencumbered by barlines or any other metrical considerations. Then, the central section took up a nervous energy, the disquiet of the music compounded by the exchanges of intensity between the hands, the bass having the melody and the treble hammering out the rhythms, something almost Grieg-like in the music’s “halling” aspect. A return to the lyrical opening was short-lived, the music breaking into a different discourse with pathetic, almost hallucinatory gestures, as if the sounds were a marionette’s arms flailing helplessly in a kind of claustrophobic space, almost Mahlerian in their contrasting garishness and impotence of expression. What relief the return of the opening lyrical strains gave us, after such unnerving dreams!

After this the gaiety and energetic drive of the third piece in Mapp’s hands seemed almost manic at first, though a change of trajectory brought us something resembling a “trio” sequence, a free-spirited, filigree right-hand decorative figure accompanying the second half of the passage. One learns to expect the unexpected with Schubert, however, and the music was true to form, suddenly turning on itself and galloping back into the fray of the opening energies! Here, the playing reached a kind of overdrive, whirling its way to a brilliant conclusion! I couldn’t have imagined a more rounded and multi-faceted performance as we got here, of this richly-endowed but still enigmatic work – it left me as amazed and disarmed as much as surprised and delighted.

After an interval we were treated to a performance of Chopin’s sublime Op.48 No.1 Nocturne, with its contrasted opening processional sequences, the first solitary and melancholic, the second purposeful and increasingly defiant. The differences were at first easefully and then vibrantly negotiated by Mapp, the music gathering determination and hurling out a challenge as the irrupting figures rose up and scattered order and decorum, leaving dazed, agitated impulses rallying themselves as best they could, desperately seeking to reconnect with a world dishevelled and broken – a journey ending in darkness and profound disillusionment.

Something of an antidote to this existential despair was provided by Olivier Messiaen, in Première communion de la Vierge, the eleventh piece in the composer’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus.  I had, some years ago heard Mapp in recital play all but one of these remarkable pieces, and illuminating them with his sensitivity of touch and command of resonance. Those timeless left-hand chords which began the piece threw the scintillations of light in the treble into bold relief, at first seeming as awakenings of nature before developing into gently-undulating bell sounds. This ritual of interaction suddenly exploded on both sides with joyously jazzy energies invigorating the mother-child interactions and rituals, filling us with wonderment at such celestial exchanges and with contentment at their humanity. By the piece’s end it seemed as if heaven and earth were united, as opening chords and scintillating responses became as one.

In the wake of these two second-half pieces, I found myself fighting the urge to wish we were getting some Liszt at the recital’s end – however, Brahms it was to be, even though Chopin and Messiaen had put me in a “fanciful” mood, something which the first of Brahms’ Fantasias, with its rough-hewn and fussily rhythmic writing only confirmed my misgivings. Thankfully, the second Intermezzo piece broke down some of my resistance with its opening “nature-calls” amid a magically-wrought ambience, Mapp beautifully enabling the enrichment of the textures in the piece’s middle section before the more “solitary” aspects of the music reclaimed the territories at the end.

A more combatative and angular mood was established by the third piece, Capriccio, developing a kind of vortex of agitated feeling before a more nobly-conceived middle section “rescued” the music for a few, warmly lyrical moments. “Related to some of Brahms’ songs” writes one commentator about the next Intermezzo, whose opening, improvisatory gestures resemble a kind of question/answer sequence, the feeling caught and held for us most warmly by Mapp in a beautifully romantic and wistfully expressive central flowering of emotion. In spite of myself, I thought it remarkable piano writing, sensitive and poetic.

The second of three Intermezzi “on the trot” contrasted with what had gone just before by dint of the music’s somewhat quirky chromatic figurations, something of a spectral waltz at the outset, though more flowing and softer-edged throughout a contrasting central passage. Mapp brought out both quirkiness and beauty throughout the strange, half-lit measures of the dance. The third Intermezzo in a row reverentially intoned a hymn-like series of chords by way of introduction to a more flowing kind of “trio” section in which the “hymn” tune showed increased animation,  before rhapsodising its way most beautifully over the same chordal structures, as it gave new life to the material.

To finish, Brahms returned to the opening Capriccio’s more agitated manner, the music dominated at the outset by a descending repeated three-note figure, one which was just as pervasive in a much gentler way throughout a contrastingly slower, more easeful section. With the return of the agitations, the music then cranked up even further in a coda which tightened the rhythms as the music’s crisis-points loomed, the sounds cascading spectacularly in Mapp’s hands, creating sonorous bell-like figures whose resonances were splendidly extolled by the pianist right to the last.

Though I was still left with a slight hankering at the end for something seemingly less consciously “wrought” and more transcendental of ambience, Mapp’s splendid playing had brought me a good deal of the way back “into” the music, and left me with a feeling of having experienced a satisfying whole (a Chopin Waltz played as an encore further eased my sensibilities!). Altogether, quite a journey, which we in the audience duly acknowledged with the sincerest of tributes to the pianist, as befitted a memorable and rewarding occasion.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *