Saturday, 25 October 2008

Jean-Bernard Pommier, Beethoven sonatas, 24 October 2008

Hall One, Kings Place

Beethoven – Piano sonata no.1 in F minor, Op.2 no.1
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.2 in A major, Op.2 no.2
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.3 in C major, Op.2 no.3
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.4 in E-flat major, Op.7

Jean-Bernard Pommier (piano)

Daniel Barenboim’s selection of piano sonatas from throughout Beethoven’s œuvre to form a series of varied programmes is not Jean-Bernard Pommier’s way. His Kings Place cycle, of which this recital was the first instalment, will be strictly chronological, although, like Barenboim’s, it will be limited to the thirty-two ‘canonical’ works. There is something to be said for either approach and little, it seems to me, to be gained by lamenting that the other one has not been chosen – although this did not prevent low-level carping from the odd sour critic determined to knock Barenboim from his pedestal. Pommier’s cycle is to be taken at a slower rate than Barenboim’s, a recital a month. I make this initial comparison not out of an obsessive regard for Barenboim, but because they will naturally be in many listeners’ minds, following the great ‘event’ of Barenboim’s cycle.

And, of course, the venue is different: Kings Place, newly opened, rather than the Royal Festival Hall. I can say that the acoustic of the shoe-box-shaped Hall One, completely soundproof and lined with the wood of a single, five-hundred-year-old German oak, is excellent, if unsparing. There is nowhere for the musicians to hide, likewise for the audience, although this did mean that the sound of incessant fidgeting was magnified. Why were so many people shuffling, dropping, and picking up papers, or engaging in mysterious rubbing or goodness knows what? This is not a criticism of the hall in any sense but it is certainly a criticism of certain members of the audience.

The first half of the programme, consisting of the first two Op.2 sonatas, was in many respects disappointing. In an introductory note, Pommier cautioned us: ‘The important thing to remember is that these works do not start off in a “minor” way.’ Very true, but that is not necessarily the impression gained here. The first reading of the F minor sonata received a classical, neo-Mozartian reading, perhaps inspired by the opening ‘Mannheim rocket’, but also, it seemed, by Mozart’s great C minor sonata, KV 457. Whereas Mozart is straining at the bounds of what his material allows, Beethoven here sounded a touch reticent, which is hardly a Beethovenian quality. The Adagio displayed a commendable control of line and clarity but lacked magic. Pommier caught nicely the metrical ambiguities of the Menuetto, though his reading lacked mystery; a dash more pedal would not have done any harm. On the other hand, the contours of the trio were clearly felt and communicated. The Prestissimo finale was over-pedalled, some of its furious triplet figuration obscured. I wondered whether Pommier was taking the movement too fast, or at least too fast for him; the music sometimes seemed to run away with him, slowing sounding motivated by technical rather than musical considerations. This was not a problem later on and the movement concluded with real fire, but it was all a little late.

At the outset of the A major sonata, Pommier sounded more at home, attuned to the quirkiness of Beethoven’s writing. Yet his reading soon stiffened, lacking the flexibility that many players have brought to this work. The openings of the development and recapitulation brought a welcome sense of rejuvenation, although this was not altogether successfully sustained. Structure, however, was eminently clear. If the pianist brought a gruff nobility to the Largo appassionato, he was sometimes simply plain and charmless. Likewise, the line between pressing onwards and sheer relentlessness was crossed more than once. I liked the reappearance of a quirky mood in the scherzo; Pommier displayed a good rhythmic sense throughout. The rondo’s theme should sound melting, heart-rending even; here it sounded disconcertingly matter-of-fact. Beethoven marks it – unusually – grazioso. I found myself longing for a little mannerism, some sign of personality, even if it were imported from without. It was not to be. Pommier’s reading also lacked dynamic differentiation, although this became more pronounced as the movement progressed. Again, however, it was rather too late.

I do not know what was put into Pommier’s half-time oranges but the third of the Op.2 sonatas sounded as if the music had been brought sharply into focus. There was real Beethovenian character here: humour and vehemence from the opening bars. The music-making was more differentiated, more yielding. I still often missed a greater lightness of touch in the first movement, but it was not entirely lacking. There was certainly a greater sense of mystery than had previously been communicated, not least in the great cadenza and the approach thereto. The Adagio flowed but was not too fast. Pommier displayed a fine sense of harmonic and rhythmic momentum, aided by far more sensitive dynamic contrasts than had been heard during the first half. Lines sang more freely; there was even the odd presentiment of Schubert. With the scherzo came a greater lightness of touch than we had heard hitherto; I even thought once or twice of Mendelssohn. The whole was built upon a clear rhythmic security, without stiffness. Such attributes also shone through in the closing Allegro assai, joined by a sense of fun, especially at the opening statement of the principal theme. Pommier could still be a little heavy-handed but this was much less of a problem than before. His trills were excellent.

The Op.7 sonata marked something, I am afraid, of a retreat, though not entirely. The first movement started well, with a splendid sense of life. However, the syncopations at the end of the exposition – and their reiterations – could have told more, sounding rather limp. There was nevertheless considerable virtuosity on show here, virtuosity that never sounded as if it were being applied for its own sake. The slow movement was dignified but earthbound. I could not discern those great metaphysical vistas opening up, such as is the case in great performances of this work. The scherzo dragged at times, partly on account of a lack of lightness where required. However, the trio exhibited a winning Romantic vehemence, presaging Schubert and Schumann. It was very good; the rest of the movement was somewhat plain. Unfortunately, the magic that can sound from the very opening of the rondo – it certainly did in Barenboim’s performance – was simply not there. Forthrightness is all to the good, but it is far from the only quality the music demands. The C minor episode was splendidly dispatched but there was not nearly enough contrast when we needed repose. Too much of this movement sounded as though it wanted to be the opening of the Emperor concerto but could not. I shall pass over the frankly inappropriate encores.

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