Firstly sparks, and then a conflagration – pianist Otis Prescott-Mason in recital

Otis Prescott-Mason (piano) at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

CHOPIN – Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor
RAVEL – Une barque sur l’ocean (from Miroirs)
BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata No.28 in A Major, Op.101
LISZT – Annees de Pelerinage Book 2 (Italy) S.161

Saturday, 20th November, 2021

Having heard, and spoken or written about so many piano recitals and recordings over the years in a critical capacity, I’m finding myself these days increasingly gravitating towards performances that bring to the fore a sense of sheer enjoyment of and involvement in the music’s playing. On the strength of what I heard at St.Andrews’ Church last Saturday afternoon, the young Wellington pianist Otis Prescott-Mason seemed to me to exhibit such qualities in unselfconscious spadefuls through his playing – here, negotiating a quixotic first half (by turns energetic and thoughtful) which struck sparks of different voltages, and then embarking post-interval on an epic journey whose concluding episodes brought forth a thrilling sense of open conflagration.

Currently studying with Jian Liu at Victoria University of Wellington, Prescott-Mason began his piano studies with Erin Taylor at the age of 5 through to the tertiary level, when he undertook a two-year period of tuition with Emma Sayers. He’s had a number of competition successes over the duration, the most significant being his winning first prize at the New Zealand Junior Piano Competition in Auckland in 2020, while he’s won on several occasions the Wellington Branch of IRMTNZ’s Recital Competition and the Tertiary Sonata Competition.

His choice of repertoire for today’s recital suggested at once his capacity to identify with a wide range of different musical styles and eras, and his readiness to rise to a challenge, with the music of Franz Liszt in particular representing a kind of acme of virtuosity and expression of Romantic feeling, in relation to the entire literature for solo piano. While the composer’s three “Years of Pilgrimage” collections or “Books” of pieces don’t consciously set out to define Romantic keyboard virtuosity as sharply as do his earlier Transcendental Etudes , certain sections of the former (such as the “Dante” Sonata which makes up the Italian Book’s final section)  require a similarly “transcendental” technique. But these works have a more profound purpose, presenting a freshly-wrought synthesis of poetic feeling with music, an uplifting of the kind that the philosopher Hegel referred to as “a free resounding of the soul” – whether manifestations of art, poetry or recollections of direct experience, Liszt sought to consciously fuse all of those things through music’s sounds to an extent that no-one had previously attempted.

Preceding the Liszt pieces in the concert’s first half, however, were whole worlds within themselves to bring into being, each of which Prescott-Mason plunged into wholeheartedly, bent on realising the “character” of whatever phrase, sequence or overall mood he brought to our attention – firstly came the Chopin B-flat Minor Scherzo’s dramatic beginning, with the tentative “knockings” of the opening forcefully countered by the answering phrases, contrasted with a beautiful cantabile melody launched over an exhilaratingly headlong accompaniment. Prescott-Mason delivered all of this and its sudden “breaking off” with arresting verve and focus, bringing out an almost religious feeling to the music’s central story-telling aspect which, by turns animated and becalmed, returned us in wonderment to a “meanwhile, back at the…..” with the reprise of the opening “knock and answer” sequences. The subsequent “working out” of the cantabile melody’s fate became a brilliant certainty in the pianist’s hands, the coda incorporating its strains into a spectacular conclusion!

Though I’ve never forgotten a breath-catching 2014 performance by another young, former Wellington pianist, Ludwig Treviranus, of Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean from the suite “Miroirs”, Prescott-Mason’s playing here demonstrated a similarly oceanic sweep allied to an acute ear for detail, accounting for the piece’s remarkable capacity in a sensitive performance to simultaneously transport and engage! Ravel often asks his music’s interpreters for what seem like contradictory qualities, as here, a deeply embedded emotion expressed with the utmost precision (one thinks also of Le Gibet from “Gaspard de la Nuit”, for example); and I got from Prescott-Mason’s playing an underlying nostalgia in the figurations and harmonies which ineffably expressed the solitude of the vessel and a steadily-focused left-handed framework that somehow suggested the vast indifference of the ocean, the whole making for an overwhelming impression.

How wonderful that this young pianist chose one of my favourite Beethoven Sonatas to include in this programme! – its opening always makes me catch my breath, an ascending phrase that seems wrought entirely from the air as if a mere passing thought, but then engenders whole sequences of give-and-take, each ascent having its own impulsive quest within an “off-the-beat” framework, Prescott-Mason dreamily “floating” the sounds in what feels like free space. The ensuing March, as playful as determined, must have surely helped inspire Schumann’s frequent use of similar dotted-rhythm-patterns, the pianist as elfin as magisterial in his approach, avoiding any sense of doggedness  in the music’s insistence. Prescott-Mason “enjoyed” the Trio’s part-fugal, part canonic game of chase between the lines, and then nicely voiced the scherzo’s return as if “from afar”, spontaneously leading us to the conclusion as a surprise rather than a pre-arranged signal.

The slow movement here seemed to resound with wonderment, its focused distillation in the pianist’s hands leading us trance-like to a kind of hiatus filled with longing, then, without warning, bringing out the work’s opening phrase once again! – and after the answering response had followed suit, the music seemed to explode with ecstatic trills and shouts of joy as Prescott-Mason released the finale upon its course! Where to from there? A “Tempest Sonata”-like arpeggiated chord seemed to cast a sea-change over the music, and a fugue began (a trial run for the “Hammerklavier” Sonata’s fugue, perhaps?), adroitly subjecting the finale’s opening phrase to all kinds of variation before crashing over the points and back onto the mainstream, Prescott-Mason giving his all in keeping the impulses on track and pumping out the energies! A reflective, “winding-down” ending is mooted at first, but with a number of precipitate chords right at the end, Prescott-Mason spectacularly paid the composer his dues in grand style.

To the pianist’s credit, there was hardly a sense at the interval of the recital being something of “two halves”, such was the feeling of continuity and ongoing purpose when he appeared to begin the Liszt part of the programme. Having readily enthused about his playing thus far, I confess to finding his rendition of the opening Spozalizio, a piece inspired by Raphael’s painting “The Marriage of the Virgin”, a tad too rushed in places. The music depicts the marriage ceremony, the programme describing “a lovely bridal song with suggestions of wedding bells”, the piece calm and ritualistic at its beginning, the softly-tolling bells alternating with the three-note “motif” that will play such a significant part in the music, the figures evoked by the stillnesses beginning to move and breathe as the sounds become increasingly animated.

Prescott-Mason’s view of the scenario was obviously a young man’s one, filled with eagerness and excitement at the occasion of a marriage, and thus enlivening the ritual aspects and letting the pealing bells “have their head”. Liszt allows the bells moments of growing excitement during the lead-up to the marriage vows, and unleashes them tellingly at the moment of the marriage pronouncement, but otherwise keeps the solemnity of the ritual very much to the fore; whereas here I felt “pushed” a shade too insistently through the ceremonial layers. Having said this I thought the pianist “enabled” the piece’s epilogue beautifully, evoking the distant bells’ pealing as a kind of ambient memory of the day’s events, and resounding them in the mind even when out of earshot. It’s all a matter of individual response, in the end; and certainly the present performance wove plenty of magic, if at a higher voltage in places than I expected.

I had no such qualms regarding Prescott-Mason’s playing of Il penseroso, Liszt’s evocation of Michelangelo’s figure carved for the tomb of Lorenzo de Medici, the music similarly wrought from what the sleeve notes describe as “lightless sonorities and frozen….melodic motion”. The pianist suberbly brought out the pounding crunchiness of the dissonances amid the darkness of the textures, releasing, as Michelangelo did from the marble, the “character” Liszt intended through his sombre evocations. Afterwards, the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa was the perfect foil for such solemnities, the music a colourful depiction of high spirits.

Where I felt Prescott-Mason particularly excelled was in his sensitive delineation of Liszt’s responses to each of three sonnets written by the scholar and poet Petrarch (born Francesco Petracco in 1304, into a family that was acquainted at the time with Dante Alighieri). Petrarch became popularly renowned for his unrequited love for a woman called Laura, whom he immortalised in a series of poems, which are regarded as polished and perfected forms of the existing “sonnet” form. Liszt set three of these to music, firstly as songs during 1838-39, and then reworking them as piano solos for this Second Book of his pilgrimage years during the 1850s. Incidentally, Petrarchan scholars have since renumbered all 366 of the sonnets, so that Liszt’s numberings for the three (47, 104 and 123) are revised as 61, 134 and 156 respectively and thus don’t correspond with more recent editions of them!

Sonnet No.47 (61) Benedetto sia ‘l giorno (Blessed be the day), featured at the outset such a felicitous touch from Prescott-Mason as to give full moment to the music’s lifting of a curtain allowing light to flood in from the “blessed day”. And the following song of love that the pianist brought into being here abounded with tender nuances, the emotion encompassed beautifully, held at one point by a gorgeously filigree descending passage before being run again, accompanied this time by repeated figurations of heightened beseechment – words of love, indeed!

The most well-known of the three is Sonnet No 104 (134) Pace non trovo (I find no peace), beginning with agitated phrases that became halting, desperate gesturings of bewilderment to the heavens – and finally heartfelt and passionate words addressed to the beloved. Prescott-Mason encompassed it all, bringing out the bard-like character of the opening entreaties, imbuing each phrase with either gravitas or delicacy by turns, and realising the original text’s stark contrasts of emotion with strongly-characterised impulse – “I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like Ice – I have nothing, yet embrace the whole world”. He then delivered the later forthright sequences with such surety as to exclaim “Both life and death displease me – and my sorrow is the cause of my strife!” before essaying the music’s rhapsodic afterthoughts with the most poetic of tones, “placing” the phrase’s highest note with absolute certainty, and resonating the “dying fall” of the remainder with appropriately stoic resignation.

In some ways the third of Liszt’s settings of these Sonnets, No.123 (156), I’vidi in terra angelici costumi  (I saw on earth figures of angelic grace) is the most remarkable of all in its economy of both material and gesture – its opening activates murmuring undulating figures and unassuming crescendi to establish the piece’s quietly rapturous mood, after which the theme continues to freely sound, interlaced with various decorative phrases generated from the opening. I thought Prescott-Mason’s detailing of these of these felicities within the music’s greater flow simply magical, as was his gathering up of the impulses into an ecstatic frisson of enchantment with the world’s “celestial harmony”, before returning, via a spontaneous burst of birdsong to a world of “angelic grace”, all bestowed by the glory of love – a memorable and treasurable sequence!

Had the recital finished at that ecstatic point no-one could have complained – but the grand design of things having already been set, the young pianist unhesitatingly steered our sensibilities towards Liszt’s epic realisation for piano solo of thirteenth-century poet Dante Alighieri’s work The Divine Comedy, a work which took the composer over twenty years to develop into its final definitive form.  Often called merely the “Dante Sonata”, the work was given the title “Apres une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata”, one borrowed from the title of a poem by Victor Hugo based on Dante’s work. Rather than come up with a mere synopsis of Dante, Liszt sought to create a series of vivid atmospheric impressions which, when aligned, themselves conveyed a real sense of a musical process or journey. The famous falling tri-tone opening in the music suggests a descent into Hell, while throughout the work the tonal progressions ceaselessly build up links between all the sonata’s themes, gradually becoming an ascent towards the Divine.

From the beginning’s diabolical “ringing-out”, Prescott-Mason’s incisive playing straightaway drove the music purposefully downwards and into Liszt’s evocation of Dante’s world, the repeated “Devil’s interval” motif creepily joining forces with descending chromatic octave scales to generate a kind of infernal “Abandon hope” scenario. How cleverly the music gradually took into the textures the countering elements which brought forth the “redemptive” themes, Prescott-Mason beautifully judging the cumulative effect so as to infuse these same textures with warmth and light, before retrenching the music’s sinews with purpose for the oncoming fray. His playing, both technically and interpretatively, delineated most skilfully the composer’s intermeshing of motifs from both darkness and light to underline the endless conflict between them in both cosmic and individual realms, and he built the excitements and tensions of disharmony as readily as he evoked the serenity and bliss of peaceful order. We were left in no doubt at the recital’s end as to the extent of the journey we had all made together, one exhilarating and revelatory, Otis Prescott-Mason having certainly done the work and its evocations proud for our great pleasure.





Leave a Reply

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