Michael Endres (piano) – a journey from classical to romantic at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society presents:
Music by Mozart, Schubert and Schumann

MOZART – Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, No. 13 K.333
SCHUBERT – “Wanderer Fantasia in C Major, D.760
SCHUMANN – Etudes Symphoniques Op.13

Michael Endres (piano)

Memorial Hall, Waikanae,

Sunday, 2nd May, 2021

I was particularly anxious to get out to Waikanae to hear Michael Endres give this recital as it had been a long time since I last heard him play – upon subsequently checking “Middle C” I discovered it was in 2013, and also at Waikanae  – and on that occasion he presented a programme that combined range and scope with judiciously matched entities, Schubert leading to Chopin in the first half and Ravel leading to Gershwin in the second.

This time, though perhaps not as widely-ranging repertoire-wise, the journey we were taken on by the pianist spanned the very different worlds of Mozart and Schumann via a “revolutionary“ work by Schubert, each piece demonstrating something of the expressive potential of the keyboard at the time of writing. Even Mozart’s piano (he owned an instrument made by Anton Walter) with two octaves less than a modern piano and lighter and smaller than Schubert’s or Schumann’s instrument would have been, would have spoken for its time with eloquence and character in its own distinctive voice.

I enjoyed without reservation Endres’s playing of both of the two Romantic works on today’s programme, Schubert’s outlandishly virtuosic “Wanderer” Fantasia, and Schumann’s profoundly expressive “Etudes Symphoniques”. And I enjoyed the pianist’s Mozart playing as well, (the B-flat Sonata K.333), though without feeling as though the notes and phrases had for him the same consistency of ownership or through-line identification that marked his playing  of the other pieces. The Mozart had some beguiling sequences, with some especially fleet-fingered and gossamer-toned playing at the outset, but we were unfortunately denied further exploring of these impressions by the lack of the first-movement repeat. The development provided some compensation by “getting down to business”, with minor-key stresses ruffling and clouding the ambiences, resulting in a certain wistful return to the sunniness of the opening, and by way of balance, a touch more emphasis given to certain details.

The slow movement seemed to me surer in its characterisations, Endres catching the charm and depth of feeling of the opening’s spacious operatic dialogue, and moving the music into darker regions almost nonchalantly at first, but gradually registering the “deep waters” referred to in the programme notes. I enjoyed the wonderfully expansive feel to the chromatic progressions that suspended time and motion in its drift back to the opening, this time through all lavishly decorated. Everything was beautifully-voiced, conveying that flow of expression in the music’s substance so very tellingly.

The finale’s light, tripping opening gathered playfulness and energy as the music unfolded, with a degree of impulsiveness “catching” the playing in places, serving the music well during the minor-key episodes, whose harmonic shifts resulted in some surprising twists and turns, our ears being taken on quite a journey! The “way back” to the opening sounded a trifle helter-skelter in places before a cadenza-like passage refocused the excitement, as bravura and delicacy by turns brought the music home.

Having said all of this, I thought it was when Endres began the concert‘s next item, Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasia D.760, that I realised what I was finding hard to fully “get” in his Mozart playing – right from the arresting opening chords there seemed to my ears a certain depth of focus, an intensity of  involvement with the music. Reading my review from the 2013 concert at which I last heard Endres play (also at Waikanae!), I commented then on the “characterful and flavoursome” Schubert-playing – and so it was here, even in a work whose essence couldn’t have been more of a contrast to the Impromptus he gave us on that earlier occasion.

Reckoned to be a real virtuoso challenge – and from all accounts one beyond its composer’s ability to perform adequately – the work here found an interpreter who possessed both the virtuoso “roar” and the recreative temperament that would encompass the work’s immediately contrasting qualities of heroism and capriciousness, the latter charmingly expressed in the second subject as a kind of insouciant “whistling on the trail” feeling in between the more urgent irruptions of energy, and the whole conveying in all of its contrasting parts that seemingly endless forward movement which defines the music.

What rapt stillness accompanied the transition into the work’s slow movement! – Endres’s playing filled the ambient spaces with such breadth of feeling, merging classical strength with romantic longing, opening up the music’s depths with bass tremolandi before seeming to pacify the ensuing agitations with a gorgeously “sung” major key version of the movement’s opening. How poignantly we were then taken between major and minor throughout this sequence, with the play of filigree decoration developing into positively Lisztian torrents of impulse! Endres held us spellbound with his command of the ebb and flow of sonorities, the ensuing calm suggesting a somewhat volatile balance of light and darkness via brooding atmospheres and dark-browed modulations.

The third movement sprang from the luftpause a little uncertainly, I thought, but soon established its audacity, with great, downward-swinging dotted-rhythm flourishes suddenly giving way to an almost carefree theme, the equivalent of the second subjects in the previous movements, one frequently “set upon” by darker forces, Endres giving us a “no-holds-barred” sense of turmoil, here. Being a “scherzo” we got a Trio section whose melody seemed here to be spontaneously improvised by the player, as did the Lisztian musings which accompanied the melody’s gradual decommissioning……certainty seemed to return with the taking up of the dotted rhythm once again, but   our sensibilities were then plunged into turmoil with what seemed like the work’s most tempestuous sequences thus far, flinging great roulades of notes every which way and modulating in what appeared like an alarmingly anarchic manner – marvellous stuff!

Two crashing chords and the fugal finale was upon us, the pianist straightaway giving us the music’s utmost in terms of energy, intoxication and wildness, and in doing so appearing to physically and recreatively become as one with both the notes and his instrument – astonishing! Nothing at the music’s conclusion would have done other than what did take place – a rapturous reception in fair tribute to what we had heard, followed by the wonderment of witnessing at first-hand such an overwhelming performance (and all of this before the interval!)……

Thrilling though Endres’ Schubert was as a “stand-alone” presentation, the concert’s second half “clinched” for me the reasons I love piano recitals, quite apart from the uniquely indispensable greatness of much of the repertoire – the unity of response from a lone performer drawing all of the music’s threads together, the intimacy of exchange between this performer, the music and listeners, and (especially) the formative and alchemic process of activation of the instrument’s characteristics (another way of saying I LOVE the sound of the piano!) all incline me by nature and circumstance towards such events.

Here, Endres appeared to very much carry on from where he had left off with the Schubert, his choice for the concert’s final item being a fruition, if you like, of certain elements of the latter’s music into full-blooded Romanticism, though still employing classical structures – Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques Op.13. The excellent programme notes accompanying the concert summarised the history of the work and the various “editions” that appeared after Schumann’s death – in this case, Endres chose the most commonly-performed version of the work, which inserts five additional variations that Schumann himself had removed for the first publication.

My first experience of this music was via a recording made in the 1960s by Vladimir Ashkenazy, one which helped popularise the work, though in the light of performances by other interpreters I’ve since heard, such as Sviatoslav Richter, the Ashkenazy now sounds less remarkable to me as an interpretation – certainly Endres’ playing of the work on this occasion seemed to me on a different plane of emotional involvement with the music, a few “quirks” involving repeats apart.

As with the Schubert work in the first half, our attention was arrested right from the outset with the opening chords of the “theme”, the sounds sharply-focused and in places the dynamics steeply-graded, as with the “ascent” in the first half of the melody, and the octave leap at the same place I the second half. I don’t propose to go through the work analysing each variation as heard here (which would become tiresome to read), but suffice to say that, despite/along with a somewhat arbirtrary attitude to repeats in certain places, every note Endres played seemed to have a “living” quality which contributed to the structural and emotional effect of that particular variation.

Throughout, the pianist’s concentration and involvement had the effect of the music seemingly recreated on the spot – nothing seemed left to chance, but was delivered in a wholeheartedly focused manner, involving the listener in a fascinatingly kaleidoscopic amalgam of structure and spontaneity. I loved, for example, the almost Prokofiev-like angularities of the fourth variation, the phrases accented and sharp-edged rather than dainty, with some of the accents almost percussive!

The playing seemed inclined to fully explore the sonorities each variation suggested, heightening our reactions to the music, a particular example being the Brahmsian  “Stars coming out at night” variation near the end (not unlike the first of the latter composer’s Op.119 pieces), the music almost completely transcending the theme, and creating a great stillness (Schumann very much in a Beethovenian mood, here) – and the repeats so enhancing our experience on this occasion, that the whole hall seemed entranced! This piece led to the penultimate variation, Endres creating a kind of  agitated suggestiveness here with a tremolando-like introduction and a ”worried” thematic figure as only Schumann could write. It was all played with every ounce of feeling that the pianist could muster up to the point where he simply eased the tension and focus and let the emotion gradually go – an amazing sensation of some kind of essence simply draining away to nothing (such great playing!).

So to the finale of the work (Schumann had borrowed a different theme for this from one of Heinrich Marschner’s operas), the opening of which was resoundingly muscular and heroic, with a gentler “reply” following. Ignoring a strange audience irruption at one point, Endres plunged undeterred into the different world of the second part of the piece, the “variation” theme then appearing as fanfares calling to and answering one another, the pianist performing orchestral-like miracles of sonority at the keyboard – later this “second episode” was repeated in a different key, leading to one of the Marschner theme’s highest notes being unexpectedly sharpened and the pianist going into what seemed like overdrive during the final pages. We were all duly swept away in a veritable deluge of notes and sounds, and, upon reassembling our sensibilities at the end, gave Michael Endres the standing ovation his playing richly deserved! An encore, most appropriately, Schumann’s “Traumerei” restored us to our lives, but piano playing of such commitment and splendour will, I’m certain, not be easily forgotten.

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