Thursday, October 22, 2020

Wigmore Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Liszt’s birthday but no more than a pianistic glimmer of the man in this recital, Jonathan Plowright focussing rather on his younger German contemporary, Brahms, with a nod in the direction of émigré Chopin in Paris. Best overall was the former’s Third Sonata, Opus 5, composed in Düsseldorf in 1853 – the same year as Liszt’s Weimar B-minor but of radically different philosophy and cut.

In the F-minor key of what Neuhaus called “more earthly, human passion”, this five-movement “veiled symphony” of eruption and ecstasy, the defiance of a junger Adler born of Beethovenian muscularity, was completed in the white heat of the twenty-year-old Brahms’s first encounter with the Schumanns and Joachim. Subtly cross-referenced, the music has no declared programme. But love ascendant is suggested by lines from Sternau prefacing the D-flat Andante: “The twilight falls, the moonlight gleams, two hearts in love unite, embraced in rapture”. And love turned to ashes seems to be the lament of the B-flat minor Rückblick (Retrospect) – a sorrowful transmoding of the Andante underlined by muffled funeral drums.

Jonathan Plowright has had this work in his system for more than forty years. This was a performance of searching maturity, steeped in depth and contemplation edged with infinite ardour and physicality. At once the far-seeking bearded Brahms of relative old age (he was only sixty-three when he died) and the handsome, blue-eyed, blonde Hamburg youth remembered by Robert Schumann’s daughter, Marie. The slow movements were especially penetrating, the great sunset-beneath-clouds closing the first, the anguished, harmonic acidity cadencing the second, speaking volumes. Likewise the tenor-voiced chorales of the Finale. Rhythmically incisive, crisp fingered, staccato fanciful, a man of powered chords and tight octaves yet with all the necessary time to gaze long within a cosmos of private intimacies and crystalline, fragilely intoned dreams, Plowright scaled the summits magnificently, undemonstratively.

Unrushed, smoky, the late Intermezzos Opus 117 witnessed a quiet soft-spoken bard conjuring sonority, harmony and melody, playing for himself not so much an audience. “Obituary poems and belated love letters [calling] woefully and bitterly into the void.” Exceptional.

A clutch of minor-key Scherzos brought bravura to the evening. The central one of the Sonata, Chopin’s Second of his four, and, to close, eighteen-year-old Brahms’s one-off Opus 4. Plowright, typically, took a drivingly symphonic, orchestral view of all three, placing them uncompromisingly in a melding/meltdown continuum between Beethoven and Bruckner. Craggy piano-playing, no holds barred, no tempo allowances, searing flashes of lightning, passing splashes of rain. It made for a thrilling ride. The tricky retransition between the Trio and reprise of the Chopin came off better than most. Opus 4 – disliked by Liszt, admired by Schumann – glittered and roared, pulse and temper forceful, an elfish/ogre-like black-key playground, shades of Grimm fairy-tales somewhere in the offing.

For encore, Paderewski’s A-flat Légende, Opus 16/1 (1886/88) – poetry and passion in harness.