Saturday, 31 May 2008

Richard Goode and Jonathan Biss, piano recital, 31 May 2008

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Schubert – Allegro in A minor for piano duet, D.947, ‘Lebensstürme’
Schumann-Debussy – Six Etudes en forme de canon, Op.56, for two pianos
Beethoven – Grosse Fuge in B flat, Op. 134, arr. by the composer for piano duet (but performed on two pianos)
Stravinsky – Agon, arr. by the composer for two pianos
Debussy – En blanc et noir, for two pianos

Richard Goode (piano)
Jonathan Biss (piano)

What a delightful choice for Richard Goode to conclude his Southbank Centre residency! It is sometimes said that piano duets are more players’ than audiences’ music, but try telling that to anyone who cares for Schubert. (Is there anyone who does not?) In any case, music written for four hands on two pianos presents a different genre, although again hardly a fashionable one. However, the choice of his fellow pianist was more important still than the variety of concert. Quoted in the programme, Goode disarmingly confessed that the reason for the latter was simply that he wanted to play with Jonathan Biss: quite an accolade for the young American pianist, although amply warranted. The two pianists formed a considerable partnership, in which it was often difficult if not impossible to disentangle their respective contributions.

Schubert’s Allegro in A minor received an impassioned reading, especially for the opening theme and its reprises; its nickname, ‘Lebensstürme’, seemed highly appropriate. The form was clearly delineated: important in itself and for appreciation of the work’s emotional course. Themes passed flawlessly between the four hands. The typically Schubertian cross-rhythms (threes against fours) were rightly not adjusted so as to lose their edge. When it came to the coda, the minor-key desolation was almost Mozartian. This was a performance of great depth, considerably more involving than the previous week’s Fifth Symphony from Sir Colin Davis and the LSO.

Debussy’s arrangement of Schumann’s canons for pedal-piano was fascinating, inhabiting a shifting ground somewhere between Bach and Debussy: as it happens, not a bad way to characterise Schumann’s music. I was also put in mind of Mozart’s piano works in the ‘Baroque style’ and Schumann’s editions of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin (with piano ‘additional accompaniments’). Debussy’s division of the canonical lines between the two pianos was made decisively to tell, so that the counterpoint emerged with great, yet never un-Romantic clarity. Chopinesque nostalgia was to be heard to great effect in the second, marked Avec beaucoup d’expression; the two-piano texture heightened the import of its concluding chromaticism. The fourth, Expressivo–Un peu plus mouvementé, was perhaps the most Romantic in character and writing; it received a duly yet never excessively passionate reading. Bach seemed distant here and Schumann himself most readily present; inspiration from the former composer in this canon was the most assimilated and transformed. (It is perhaps no coincidence that Schumann’s canonical writing is less strict here than in some of the other pieces.) The rhythmic bounce given to the fifth canon, Pas trop vite, was infectious. There was a true sense of expansive culmination in the Adagio final canon, which – rather to my surprise – put me briefly in mind of Elgar. This was not merely the sixth piece, but the final movement in a six-movement work. The only drawback was the return with a vengeance of Goode’s curiously tuneless ‘singing’: one can cope, but it is undeniably distracting.

Beethoven’s own transcription of the Grosse Fuge ought to be more often performed. If the final ounce of the original’s strain – near-impossibility? – is absent, then this is really only a matter of degree. I am not sure why it was performed on two pianos; perhaps it was simply in order to avoid a second change-over, although this could readily have been accommodated, given that the performers left the stage after the Schumann canons. It is a very minor point, but I wonder whether some of that strain would have returned with a performance on one instrument. In any case, the playing was of such impressive unanimity that one might often have been forgiven for hearing but the one piano. Having heard the Op.111 sonata from Krystian Zimerman earlier in the week, I was reminded once again of how much more radical Beethoven’s writing is in this fugue even than that of the late piano sonatas. The opening Allegro was brusquely vehement, appearing to presage almost the whole gamut of twentieth-century composition. Then, the second section brought to mind the piano writing of the late Bagatelles and, in its characteristic sublimity, the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis. Its G-flat major tonality – one of the most enjoyable keys in which to play on the piano, in sharp contrast to nasty F-sharp major – was the perfect setting for Beethoven’s rapt lyricism. Goode’s grunting was more distracting here than it would be in the Allegro molto e con brio, where the sense of such strenuous effort was not entirely out of place. Indeed, this third section boasted an awe-inspiring dialectic between quixotic play and extreme intellectual strenuousness. On the technical side, co-ordination of the trills was impressive, but there was never any question of beauty for its own sake, as had sometimes been the case in the Zimerman Beethoven performance referred to above. Occasionally, I thought that Beethoven’s silences might profitably have been slightly extended, but this was my only cavil, and a minor one at that. The coda was rightly made both to perform its integrative function and also not quite to succeed in doing so, the music proving uncontainable within its form; the Romantics did not err completely in understanding Beethoven as having burst the constraints of Classical – or in this case, quasi-Baroque – form. Both pianists looked appropriately exhausted at the conclusion to this fine performance.

‘Stravinsky’s Agon I’m somewhat obsessed with,’ Goode confided in the programme interview: ‘it’s invigorating and wonderful. It’s one of the most New York things Stravinsky ever write: you can hear the traffic!’ We certainly could during this performance, above all during the Pas-de-Quatre and its reprise in the Coda. The metrical tightness with which Stravinsky’s rhythmic cells were projected was all one might have asked for; the several ostinati were especially well served in this regard. An entirely apt impression of total control evoked that quality, common to the composer’s entire œuvre, in the score. It was, moreover, commendably apparent throughout that these were dance numbers. I missed the orchestral colours – not least the mandolin – and our pianists could not entirely disguise the fact that Stravinsky had arranged the work for rehearsal purposes rather than as a creative re-imagining, yet the losses were not so great as one might have expected. The one occasion when orchestral colour remained was during the Bransle Gay: however, whilst it was fun to see Biss play the castanets rather than the piano this number, his slightly diffident performance suggests that he should keep the day job. A more implacable performance of its 3/8 metre would have allowed the irregular quintuple and septuple semiquaver piano variants to register more bitingly, although Goode projected the grace-note rhythm here with great style. The spirit of Webern truly enters the score during its second half (roughly) and it is sad to note that some quarters of the audience became a little restless. This could not, however, negate the extraordinary and so-very-typical achievement of Stravinsky in creating a Rameau-meets-Webern score that yet sounds only like Stravinsky.

As in Goode’s February solo recital, the Debussy here was painted with primary colours, with little hint of impressionist haze. The technical challenges of En blanc et noir are perhaps more audibly apparent than during the other works, but they were all despatched with aplomb, and musical aplomb at that. Biss may have exhibited a slightly brighter tone than Goode, but this may simply have reflected the distribution of parts; the way in which four hands played as one was far more remarkable than any occasional slightest differences of character. The slow second piece, prefaced in the score by François Villon’s Ballade contre les ennemis de la France, successfully evoked both the spirit of old France and the horrors of the battlefield: Ein’ feste Burg had an implacable onward tread. I do not care for Debussy’s nationalism here, but it would do no one any good to ignore it. The third movement was a true scherzando, all the more remarkable given the participation of two pianists and two instruments. There was ample virtuosity on display, not least in the treacherous repeated notes, yet it was always at the service of the music.

After this triumphant performance, Goode and Biss reverted to one piano, four hands, for an encore: Schumann’s Abendlied. It proved the perfect conclusion to a splendid recital: achingly beautiful and so unambiguously characteristic of the composer (far more so than the earlier canons). The harmonies tugged the heartstrings in a way unique to Schumann, and left this listener wishing for more.

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