Janáček – Piano sonata 1.x.1905, ‘From the street’
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.21 in C major, op.53, ‘Waldstein’
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.24 in F sharp major, op.78
Brahms – Piano sonata no.2 in F sharp minor, op.2
Andreas Haefliger (piano)
Andreas Haefliger is a musician I have long admired, his intelligence in terms of programming and performance an example to many others. This recital, however, part of the London Pianoforte Series, was profoundly disappointing, the only estimable performance being the first, that of Janáček’s piano sonata.
As it stands, the sonata is in two movements, the composer having destroyed the third prior to the premiere. (He also attempted to destroy the other two shortly after, but the pages thrown into the Vltava failed to sink.) Like so many ‘unfinished’ works, however, the sonata works perfectly well as it stands; I have never felt the lack of a finale, intriguing though the prospect may be. The balance and development Haefliger posited between the Presentiment – Con moto and Death – Adagio seemed beyond reproach, reminiscent of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony. Janáček’s soundworld was captured from the outset, as was the characteristic tension between fluidity and stubbornness of repetition, especially during the first movement. Haefliger evinced an almost Ravelian delight in sonority but the dark Moravian soul could only be Janáček’s. The adagio proceeded as a sung lament for, in the composer’s words, ‘a humble worker František Paclík, stained with blook. He came only to plead for a university, and was struck down by murderers.’ The reality of the demonstrations of 1905 was a good deal more complex than that but for the duration of the sonata, we could all sympathise with Janáček’s Czech nationalism. There was a calm inner strength to this movement, possessed of the same inner obstinacy as the first, which grew in strength until reaching a truly Romantic climax. Haefliger’s tone was full but never forced, subsiding as if to return us to everyday life, leaving behind a memorial that triumphantly vindicated words from the composer quoted in the programme: ‘A fellow was holding forth to me about how only the notes themselves meant anything in music. And I say they mean nothing at all unless they are steeped in life, blood, and nature, Otherwise they are like playthings, quite worthless.’ Take that, Stravinsky.
After the Janáček, Haefliger’s Beethoven proved quite a shock. The first movement of the Waldstein sonata was taken ruinously fast, leading to more than one notable slip in the semiquaver runs. I doubt that such a tempo could ever have worked, but the pianist should certainly then have slowed considerably for the second group, which utterly failed to melt hearts. It actually was slower on repetition of the exposition, but this sounded merely arbitrary. The development section was impassioned but also generalised – and still too fast. The harmonic surprises that mark its conclusion and the dawn of the recapitulation were masterfully presented, opening up a whole new world. These were breathtaking but it was more than a little too late. The coda sounded more like a series of finger exercises than middle-period Beethoven. There was a nicely mysterious opening to the Introduzione, whose rests were really made to tell. Sung, sustained: there was a true sense of the ineffable. Moreover, the rondo emerged from these shadows with profound inevitability. Thereafter, however, much was heavy-handed and plodding. I am usually the last person to complain of excessive Romanticism, but there is something awry when this music sounds more like a Liszt transcription. (I was put in mind of the Schubert-Liszt Erlkönig.) The prestissimo coda sounded utterly unprepared, merely tacked on. It was headlong but not exultant. The F sharp major sonata, which followed after the interval, was better but far from startling. The extraordinary four-bar introduction sounded soft-focussed rather than poetic. Whilst the rest of the movement continued amiably enough, it lacked distinctiveness. And the Allegro vivace lacked the economical humour that points forward to the Eighth Symphony. It was fluently dispatched but little more.
We do not hear Brahms’s piano sonatas so very often. I suspect that anyone coming to the F sharp minor sonata ‘cold’ would, from this performance, have struggled to ascertain the identity of the composer. This may be early Brahms but I have never heard it sound so utterly unlike him. Haefliger’s technique was certainly up to the notes. There was some splendid virtuosity here – at least on its own terms, especially in the second movement variations. However, there was a curiously – I am tempted even to say bizarrely – rhapsodic sense to all four movements and to the whole. I do not mean that in a sense akin to Brahms’s own later rhapsodies, which are anything but sprawling or undirected. Much of this sounded like minor Liszt. There was a series of fleeting impressions, sometimes impressive as episodes, but with little sense of connection to an overarching structure. And if we know anything of Brahms, it is his iron-clad command of formal structure. Another, at least in terms of the piano music, would be his utterly characteristic sonority. Again, Haefliger suggested Liszt or perhaps Chopin, but rarely Brahms; dazzling brightness replaced mahogany. Most perplexing.