Sunday 15 May 2011

Charles Rosen - Chopin, 15 May 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Nocturne in B major, op.62 no.1
Nocturne in E major, op.62 no.2
Barcarolle in F-sharp major, op.60
Mazurka in A-flat major, op.50 no.2
Mazurka in C-sharp minor, op.63 no.3
Waltz in C-sharp minor, op.64 no.2
Ballade no.4 in F minor, op.52
Sonata in B minor, op.58 no.3

I expected to enjoy this recital; I wanted to enjoy this recital… Unfortunately, I gained the impression that it came a good few years too late. Charles Rosen is a great musicologist and, more than that, a great public intellectual. Moreover, as one can readily forget, he was a pupil of Moritz Rosenthal, and thus a grand-pupil of Liszt, and has forged a distinguished career as a pianist. I had never heard him before in concert, so jumped at the opportunity. On the basis of the present recital, at least, his technique has in good part deserted him.

The two op.62 Nocturnes are far from easy, but ought to have presented a relatively safe way in. The B major Nocturne, however, proved heavy-handed, distended, and at times strikingly uncertain of direction: all the more surprising from a pianist who, as we know from his writings, understands this music so well. There was perhaps more direction to its E major companion, but it opened in casual fashion, quite charmless, and, despite a few instances of interesting voice-leading, sounded as unlike a Nocturne as any recent performance I can recall. Fioritura not only failed to hint at the vocal – one might, I suppose, claim that as an interpretative choice – but sometimes failed to materialise at all. The Barcarolle had its moments, but quite lacked charm and also suffered from considerable uncertainty. A couple of Mazurkas and the C-sharp minor Waltz replaced the advertised three op.59 Mazurkas. The A-flat Mazurka, op.50 no.2, failed to dance, though that in C-sharp minor, op.63 no.3 replaced liveliness – it is marked Vivace – with true poignancy. The waltz charmed in parts but, alas, there was more than one occasion when the right hand ran away from the left, and these were not occasions on which one could ascribe that to old-fashioned, purposive asynchonicity. Again, despite some telling instances of voice-leading, there were a few ornamental passages that did not properly run their course.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was the F minor Ballade, replacing the Fantasy-Polonaise, which, heard immediately prior to the interval, came off best. Here, despite the slips, was a true sense of purpose. Rubinstein it was not; there was little to beguile. There remained, however, a sense of almost Lisztian struggle, such as had also characterised the stronger passages of the Barcarolle. The Third Sonata had the second half to itself. There was something of that Beethovenian purpose to the first movement, married moreover to a properly neo-Bachian sense of polyphony. Light and shade, however, were for the most part absent and pauses sometimes seemed inserted to gather breath rather than to serve rhetorical ends. The Scherzo came and went, hardly scintillating, but steady and dogged. Much the same, unfortunately, could be said of the slow movement – and the finale. It was, I am afraid, a relief to reach the end, though two encores ensued: Liszt’s transcription of the song Moja pieszczotka (‘Meine Freuden’) and the first published mazurka.