Showing posts with label Wilhelm Backhaus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wilhelm Backhaus. Show all posts

Monday, November 26, 2012

On fire at the Lucerne Piano Festival

How I wish that that title were metaphoric, but for once, dear readers, it isn't.

There I am in the foyer of one of those beautiful hotels with the piano bars, leafing through a newspaper and leaning against a convenient ledge while waiting for a jam session to start in which the likes of Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Simon Mulligan and friends are to play the night away. And I smell burning. And my back begins to feel hot. For there, behind me, is a candle, and it may be Christmas and it may be pretty, but it's nevertheless a naked flame and it has set light to my inexpensive yet smart and brand-new black lace jacket, and another 30 seconds and JD will be toast. With rapid brain-to-hand connections honed by typing and piano-playing (or in this case schnozz-to-hand connections, perhaps) I manage to whip off the jacket and save myself and the smartest hotel in Lucerne from spontaneous combustion.

All's well that ends well. The jacket is a write-off, but I escaped with only a whisker of a singe, if a bit shaken. Missed the jam session and slunk back to my own hotel for camomile tea and a stiff whisky. It's not a bad place to slink back to.


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The jazz element is one of the nicest things about the piano festival. You find scenes like this - Jan Eschke in the KKL foyer entertaining the concert-goers at a scarlet Steinway created specially for the festival...








 Or this - Simon Mulligan in residence for Saturday afternoon at the Schweizerhof:

The big concerts, meanwhile, went on on Saturday night with Jean-Yves Thibaudet in the Ravel Left Hand Piano Concerto, partnered by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Bernard Haitink. The maestro gave us some gorgeous Mozart in the second half: the G minor Symphony No.40 with judicious tempi, beautiful long phrases and plenty of heart. Ravel, though, didn't seem quite their thang, emerging a bit ploddy and metronomic, while the inimitable Jean-Yves did his very best to insert some sparkled into the proceedings beyond his trademark diamante belt. I am still cross about missing his jazzathon - he can do a mean Bill Evans turn when he wants to.

Last but by no means least, possibly the most gorgeous piano recital I have heard all year. Andras Schiff is very busy with Beethoven at the moment, and having missed his Wigmore Hall recital last week, it was a treat to hear him in the much larger KKL with its warm and exquisite acoustic. His programme included the sonatas from Opp.14 to 28 - all of them - and involved the special atmosphere that Andras's mega-traversals of repertoire tend to have, plus some.

This total-immersion experience is a little like a meditation. Instead of grabbing us, shocking us and bashing the hell out of the instrument, as some pianists do, Andras leads us into another world through silken beauty of sound, absolute love for every note and a temperate attention to the purity of the music. The hall lights are darkened and he plays under a spotlight - a very good idea, since it stops the audience rustling pages as they try to read the programme mid-flow.

He is currently touring with a Bechstein of 1921 that was used often by Wilhelm Backhaus - implicitly aligning himself not so much with the "HIP" movement as the "Golden Age" of pianism. In my case, of course, he's preaching to the converted by choosing a Bechstein. I grew up with one, then bought a new one about eight years ago. I love the character of the Bechstein sound, the woody plangency of the tone, the distinctive nature of the different registers. Andras himself has perhaps the most recognisable personal sound of any pianist working today - it isn't comparable to any other pianist I've heard, other than recordings of Bartok himself. Over the years it has grown and evolved to suit Beethoven every bit as well as Bach - and it is difficult to imagine a more ideal vehicle for it than this instrument. This playing was not like Beethoven that you'll hear from anyone else - and it is revelatory, allowing those underrated  Op.14s, Op.22 and Op.26 to glow as the masterpieces they are by stripping them to their essence and, with total empathy, focusing on nothing but that. I could have listened to him forever.

I urge you to seek out this unique artist and hear him at every possible opportunity. He plays a lot - and here in London, I fear that it has perhaps been too easy to take his presence for granted. Tonight he is playing the same programme as in Lucerne, this time at the Wigmore Hall.

Here's his American website and schedule; and the UK one.

And here he is talking about Op.111. You can hear all his lectures on the Beethoven sonatas via The Guardian, by following these links.