Saturday, 3 June 2023

Tiberghien - Sweelinck, Bach, Benjamin, Beethoven, and Mozart, 1 June 2023

Wigmore Hall

Sweelinck: Six Variations on ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’
Bach-Brahms: Partita no.2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004: Chaconne
Benjamin: Shadowlines: Six Canonic Preludes for Piano
Beethoven: Thirty-two Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80
Beethoven: Twenty-four Variations on Righini’s arietta, ‘Venni amore’, in D major, WoO 65
Mozart: Piano Sonata in A major, KV 331/300i
Beethoven: Six Variations on an Original Theme in D major, op.76

Cédric Tiberghien (piano)

What variation there can be in variation, especially in the hands of do discerning a pianist and musician as Cédric Tiberghien. From Sweelinck to Benjamin, every performance a jewel, this was a recital as enjoyable as it was ingenious and instructive. 

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s Variations on ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’ were imbued with an air of melancholy such as is perhaps more likely on the piano than the harpsichord, the gap between our age and Sweelinck’s paradoxically both more and less pronounced. More important, though, were clarity of line and beauty of touch. Ornamentation told, without distracting. The art of variation had been properly announced, Tiberghien’s second variation boasting pinpoint accuracy and rhetorical flair, his third marrying surface nonchalance with deep harmonic understanding. The fifth emerged as if carved from Carrara marble. All the while, harmony and counterpoint wove their magic. 

Little less than a month earlier, I had heard Benjamin Grosvenor in this same hall play Busoni’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne. Now it was Brahms’s turn; and, Busoni devotee though I may be, I must acknowledge Brahms’s as the finer work. I knew, but even had I not, I am sure I would have heard before seeing that this was left-hand only. Brahms’s stroke of genius in confining his transcription to the piano’s left hand liberates the pianist both to sound more like the violin and, in another paradox, also more like itself; or so it sounded here. Tiberghien’s phrasing and touch were both entirely pianistic – what an array of colours! – and yet entirely communicative of Bach’s own conception. The performance could melt in well-nigh Schumannesque fashion too, again without ever veering away from Bach. The advent of D major proved deeply moving, even stirring, which may or may not be quite the same thing; it built wondrously thereafter too. Ultimately, again, harmony ruled. And the return to the minor offered a tragic acceptance that was equally Bach’s and Brahms’s, the final statement of the theme possessed of a nobility that brooked no response. 

George Benjamin’s Shadowlines, written in 2001, is as its subtitle states, a set of six canonic piano preludes. Tiberghien offered finely etched performances, as if presenting a series of musical paintings coming vividly to life before our ears. (‘As if’ may be superfluous.) Process as well as rhetoric, counterpoint as well as harmony, and so much more helped reveal a deeply Romantic imagination at work. Ghosts from the past – Debussy, Messiaen, Boulez, Webern, Stravinsky – could be heard, yet there was never any doubting the individuality of the principal voice. 

Beethoven’s C minor Variations, WoO 80, rounded off the first half. This may or may not be ‘minor’ Beethoven, but who cares? In a performance that took in a host of experience from the balletic to the visionary, revealing at time surprising affinities with Bach’s Chaconne, a new, little suspected world from this pianist-composer opened up before us. Beethoven sang, scowled, and above all developed in variation. As earlier, Tiberghien’s virtuosity was worn lightly and above all musically, just as in the very little-heard early Righini Variations, WoO 65, probably from 1790, published the following year. Here Tiberghien was at his most charming. He drew attention to individual characteristics and possibilities of different variations – leaning into phrases beautifully in the first, the second proving splendidly eccentric – without trying to make them into something they could not be. Many of the anticipated devices of Classical variation technique were there; they never seemed, though, to be mere devices, and even on occasion offered striking anticipations of the future. Syncopations, particular spacing of chords, the structural importance (and orchestral resonances) of certain intervals, and delicious moments of whimsy: all these and more one could enjoy, just so long as one listened. So too were surprises it was difficult not to think of as Beethovenian. 

Mozart’s A major Sonata, KV 331/300i, opens with a celebrated theme and variations, here given with winning flow and lilt, and for the most part a fine cantabile, save when lyricism gave way to something more percussive. The journey as a whole ‘flowed like oil’, to borrow from Mozart’s own recommendation for musical performance, whilst retaining capacity for incident. The turn to the minor offered pathos without exaggeration, duly dignified, whilst the Adagio sounded intriguingly modernistic in its proliferation: Mozart via Boulez, it seemed. A graceful minuet proved similarly full of character and incident, as did its trio: related, yet quite different, almost a variation in itself. One might say much the same of the Rondo alla Turca, here given with deadpan humour and equally well-timed command of agogic accents. Cannily following with Beethoven’s op.76 Variations, whose theme would later be used for the ‘Turkish March’ for the Ruins of Athens incidental music, Tiberghien gave the work as if it were a programmed encore. Its striking concision, redolent of the Bagatelles and some of the sonatas, revealed similarly good humour. 

For an actual encore, we were treated to a transcription – Egon Petri’s, I think – of Bach’s ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ (for which, exceptionally, we surely all use the English form). As Tiberghien remarked in his introduction, transcription is another form of variation. What we heard was as delectable, as poised, and as exquisitely voiced as anything in a programme replete with such delights.