Thursday, 10 November 2011

Andreas Haefliger: Liszt and Schubert, 9 November 2011

Wigmore Hall

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage: Première année – Suisse, S 160
Schubert – Piano Sonata in G major, D 894

The Wigmore Hall has, I think, contributed more than any other London venue to this year’s Liszt bicentenary. Andreas Haefliger contributed the first book of the Années de pèlerinage – Louis Lortie will perform the second next month – alongside Schubert’s G major piano sonata, D 894. One could make connections, of course, but I was not entirely convinced by the juxtaposition; maybe it was better simply to consider this as a concert of two halves, or maybe I found myself too much under the spell cast by Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s visionary programming at the previous night’s Queen Elizabeth Hall concert.

With the memory of Aimard’s recital still fresh, comparison was inevitable. Haefliger did not come off badly at all. If the two pianists’ styles and approaches were often quite different, there was much to learn and much to enjoy from both. ‘Chapelle de Guillaume Tell’ announced not only big tone, Haefliger’s Steinway contrasting with Aimard’s Yamaha, but also resplendent, I am tempted to say ‘modernistic’, clarity alongside the pianist’s generally monumental approach. ‘Au lac de Wallenstadt’ provided a nicely rippling interlude, whilst the ‘Pastorale’ proceeded with properly generative rhythmic impetus, more than a merely thematic nod to Beethoven in general and to his op.28 sonata in particular. Colour and narrative remained of course very much Liszt’s own. ‘Au bord d’une source’ boasted glittering sonority, though Haefliger displayed a degree of untidiness and hardening of tone at climaxes. ‘Orage’, on the other hand, seemed tailor-made to the grand manner adopted, the Steinway truly coming into its own in a tumultuous rejoicing in its capabilities. Lisztian rhetoric and Romantic force of Nature sounded as one.

With ‘Vallée d’Obermann’, Haefliger came into direct ‘competition’ with Aimard. Both pianists displayed unerring command of line. Perhaps surprisingly, Haefliger’s tone was the more crystalline of the two, though lines could dissolve vertically where required, prophetic not only of Wagner’s technique in, say, Tristan und Isolde, but also of the Second Viennese School. Aimard, on the other hand, more strongly foreshadowed the dark expressionism of such ‘music of the future’. I preferred his darker way with Liszt’s climaxes, but there was much to learn from Haefliger’s more ‘objective’ approach, even if again, one had to deal with a degree of hardening at climaxes. Shaping of the more overtly ‘vocal’ lines, however, remained a joy. ‘Eglogue’ offered a charming pendant, whilst ‘Le mal du pays’ offered an intriguing combination of sonority that was still very much of its time and troubled mood that looked forward to the fruits of Liszt’s old age. ‘Les cloches de Genève’ offered quiet – at least to begin with – ecstasy, Liszt’s line spun as if superior Bellini. When the temperature increased, I felt the tempo might have benefited from broadening somewhat. This nevertheless remained an impressive performance.

Command of line was once again apparent in the first movement of the Schubert sonata, though I wondered whether Haefliger focused a little too much upon the bright, even glittering, side of life here, especially in the second group. There was, though, some beautifully hushed playing too. The development had Beethovenian purpose, though it could seem unduly stark, even monochrome, at times. Haefliger paced the movement well, throughout its well-nigh Brucknerian yet surely ‘heavenly’ length. The opening of the second movement sounded as a sincere lyrical outpouring, though the minor-key episodes perhaps intruded a little too violently. (One might well argue, though, for the necessity of contrast here.) Did gruffness shade into heavy-handedness in the minuet? Perhaps, but the lyrical response was delightful – and painful, in the best sense. The trio was likewise pastoral yet discomfiting. If the finale is always likely to prove somewhat enigmatic, was it a little too much so here? There were some charming and some striking moments, to be sure, but overall line seemed a little hesitant; Sometimes the best way to deal with a door is to walk straight through it. On the other hand, the lack of easy ‘solution’ had more than a little to commend it.

1 comment:

PhilipMC said...

I too went to both Andreas Haefliger's recital and Pierre-Laurent Aimard's the previous evening at the QEH, and enjoyed both very much. I don't think I can add anything to or comment on your excellent review of the Liszt in either, orthe other pieces in Aimard's recital - I have known and loved the well known, frequently performed Liszt repertoire for a long time, but to my shame it is only in this centenary year that I have begun to become a little more familiar with some of the less popular pieces in, for example, the Annees de Pelerinage sets. What an extraordinary composer he is ! And what a shame that there has been no performance this year of his great oratorio Christus.

As well as the quality of his playing, Haefliger was good to look at too - the ample head of tight curls and the hand and arm flourishes (not at all excessive) were enough to remind us that he was playing the music of a great showman pianist as well as composer. And wasn't it wonderful for once (and call me old fashioned if you like) to see a solo performer in white tie and tails, not just because it looks good but also he had taken the trouble to dress up formally for his audience.

I do feel able to comment on his Schubert. I found his basic tempo in the first movement just a little too fast, and it was erratic with a tendency to rush, most noticeably in the semiquaver passages in the second subject. This is a piece which in an ideal world really does need a measured rock steady tempo in order to convey fully its sublime trancendence. And yet I found it less annoying than I would have expected because somehow I nevertheless felt that Haefliger's heart and understanding were in the right place, a view corroborated by his interpretation of the the rest of the sonata. Ernest Hutcheson, in his wonderful book The Literature Of the Piano (a constant companion for me for over 50 years), confessed "that the heavenly beauty of the first movement leaves me rather cold to the less interesting Andante and the diffuse final Allegretto". It can often feel a bit like that in performance, but not with Haefliger. The basic tempi, detailed pacing and contrasts of the last three movements felt just right and the whole sonata came over as much less of a marathon than it sometimes can in the hands of pianists who emphasise bar to bar expressivity at the expense of the overall architecture. To sum up, both evenings were edifying and memorable.