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.
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:
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.
Monday, November 26, 2012
Saturday, November 24, 2012
Look who I saw yesterday.
I'm in Lucerne, of course. In November, the pianists take over the town. The Lucerne Festival is now not just a summer thrill, but a specialist haven for piano buffs in the unlikely month of November. Last night Paul Lewis (centre) performed the last three Schubert sonatas; and first his one-time mentor (left), who needs no introduction to JDCMB readers, gave a lecture about the works, playing extracts of them, and describing them as a "family" of works with some fascinating motivic connections to explore. (The proud gentleman on the right is Tom Hull, agent to them both. No wonder he looks happy.)
I've been privileged to follow Paul's career for the past 20 years and watching him grow from hugely gifted student and competition prizewinner to one of the finest Schubert players around has been a treat from the beginning. He is especially good at conjuring the "distant" world of Schubert through a touch that is as soft as fur and filled with sensitivity to inner echoes, hints of far-off bells, haunted by an invisible Lieder singer. Parts of his performance were perfection, and that's not a phrase I would use lightly: the slow movement of the B flat and the last movement of the A major stood out as moments in which I could almost imagine I was listening to Schubert himself. Occasionally one wants more sense of fear, the feel of living under the Sword of Damocles that Schubert faces head on in the A major slow movement's encounter with hell, or the C minor's Erlkoenig-like dance of death finale. But frankly, that is splitting straws: it was a mesmerising and unforgettable evening.
Playing all three of this final trilogy in succession remains a programming quirk that I, personally, am not entirely comfortable with. It always seems, whenever I hear them done this way, that the C minor, which goes first, doesn't come off as perfectly as it should; and the B flat, which goes last, sometimes misses its exposition repeat, which really should be mandatory, but you can't help reflecting that by this time we are all very, very exhausted by Schubert's intensity and his 'heavenly length'. I feel we might appreciate each work more were it to be performed individually as part of what another pianist I'm hearing here tomorrow has been known to call a "mixed salad" programme.
Meanwhile the jazzers are out in force. Lucerne has a variety of exquisite hotels, the bars of which are transformed into jazz piano outlets for the festival duration. Today at teatime Simon Mulligan is performing in the one downstairs from where I'm now writing; last night we could wind down after the Schubert by listening to the veteran Johnny Varro there, with a lovely young couple excelling at an impromptu spot of Lindyhop and Ceroc. A number of jazz pianists are resident in the festival and circulate between the venues; trotting between them to compare and contrast is becoming a pastime of choice for enthusiasts of all descriptions. It's also a great way for the festival to draw the whole town in to the festival and perhaps persuade people who mightn't choose a full-blown recital to give it a go. And the festival academy remains active now as ever, with masterclasses for fortunate young pianists given last week by Leon Fleisher.
Not that Lucerne has to do very much outreach. I was aware, interviewing festival director Michael Haefliger yesterday, that his comment "We do OK," is probably understatement of the year.
View from my window: