Webern – Variations for piano, op.27
Haydn – Variations in F minor, Hob.XVII/6
Berg – Piano Sonata, op.1
Mozart – Piano Sonata in A major, KV 331/300i
Schoenberg – Six Little Piano Pieces, op.19
Schubert – Six Moments Musicaux, D 780
David Greilsammer is fast making a name for himself both as pianist and conductor, recently having been appointed Music Director of the Geneva Chamber Orchestra. He certainly showed enterprise in programming, presenting pairs of works performed without a break: one from the Second Viennese School, followed by one from the ‘first’, attempting to make formal connections between them.
This worked very well with the opening Webern and Haydn pairing. The Webern op.27 Variations benefited from a beautifully soft opening, with no cost to subsequent dynamic contrast. Webern’s intervallic thinking and construction shone through, such that anyone would be able to perceive them, even were he not able to put a serial name to the processes at work. For instance, the minor seconds of the second variation had real bite, uniting expressive and formal function. If anything, the approach became at times a little too pointillistic, though there is of course no single way to perform Webern. There was little of Maurizio Pollini’s crystalline perfection here, but an intriguing, exploratory way that led directly into the Haydn F minor variations, themselves benefiting from a similarly beautiful, quiet opening, utterly pianistic in conception, thumbing a nose at bogus notions of ‘authenticity’. There was no absurd puritanism – is there a non-absurd form? – with respect to use of the sustaining pedal. Greilsammer clearly strove to bring out parallels between the works, relishing the chromaticism of the minor-key variations, which consequently sounded more Mozartian, Romantic even, than would often be the case. I did wonder, however, whether the conclusion of the second minor variation was simply too nineteenth-century in its conception. The coda was also unabashedly Romantic, exhibiting Beethovenian pride, insistence, even heroism.
The second pairing started equally well, with Berg’s one-movement piano sonata. Its opening couple of bars sounded relatively cool, but the atmosphere soon became more heated, with something of the Zemlinskian hothouse too it. Proximity to Schoenberg’s piano style, perhaps to Liszt even in the climaxes, was readily apparent. There was the odd wrong note, but this was clearly a slip of the fingers, nothing more. Then, however, came an account of Mozart’s Alla Turca piano sonata such as I have never heard, and such as I never wish to hear again. It is not at all clear to me that this was the best Mozart work to select to accompany the Berg – I can think of many pieces that would have made more sense in context – but what truly disturbed was the utterly un-Mozartian, even anti-Mozartian execution. Though there was a welcome flexibility to the first movement theme and variations, even the theme was rendered unnecessarily complicated. Points were made, perhaps valid in theory, but the Mozartian simplicity that conceals complexity was quite abandoned. The first variation sounded like a parody of Glenn Gould, whilst its successor was pulled around far too much. Phrases here and elsewhere became disjunct, unconnected with each other – surely the antithesis of a Bergian interpretation. The music lacked charm and indeed any sense of vocal inspiration; it was merely ‘interesting’, though the minore variation was something of an exception, showing that Greilsammer was perfectly capable of playing stylishly when he put his mind to it. Even there though, ornamentation for its own sake drew attention to itself and added a sense of disjuncture. There was also a great deal of straightforward heavy-handedness. The minuet proved equally charmless, though the trio was a little more relaxed, if still over-interpreted. (Harnoncourt and Rattle sprang to mind.) As for the celebrated finale, it opened in effortful fashion and continued still more so. The harshness of the major-mode passages was at best unpleasant.
Schoenberg and Schubert followed after the interval. The Six Little Piano Pieces, op.19, are a string of jewels even by Schoenberg’s standards, and received their due in Greilsammer’s performance. The pianist played with real insight into the connections between the notes and the phrasing that had been so lacking in his Mozart. A fine touch exhibited itself in the first piece and thereafter. The second was euphonious to an unusual degree, though the fourth was less successful in that respect; it needs to sound loud, but not heavy-handed. The sixth was simply beautiful, Klangfarbenmelodie somehow suggested by the allegedly monochrome piano, through its finely etched suggestion of Mahlerian funeral bells. It was played faster than is usual, but the tempo worked. I have my doubts about performing Schubert Moments Musicaux as a set like this, but in the context of the present recital it made sense, responding to the Schoenberg set of six pieces. Greilsammer’s Schubert, however, proved as controversial as his Mozart. The first piece marked a definite return to a style of disjuncture, with weird impressionistic interludes. It lacked rhythmic impetus – which includes harmonic rhythm. In its distended nature, I was put in mind of Ivo Pogorelich at his most perverse: there is clearly a mind at work, but sometimes less can be so much more. There were some beautiful ‘moments’ in the second piece, but as a whole it sounded too much as if it wished to be Chopin. (The parallels between Schubert and Chopin are fascinating, but I am not sure that the latter should sound as if he merely aspires to the character of the latter.) The F minor Allegretto moderato, however, beguiled with relative simplicity, though its successor witnessed a highlighting of voices that was revealing and exasperating in almost equal measure. I nevertheless warmed to the interesting – and not in a pejorative sense – premonitions of Chopin’s mazurkas. The fifth piece was hard-driven and harsh of tone, but the final piece brought unexpected harmonic consonance with the world of Schoenberg. If only it had not been pulled around so much, quite beyond what the music could reasonably be expected to bear.