by Dr. Luis Dias

The casual, relaxed stride of young (he turns 20 this year) Julian Clef to the concert grand Steinway at the Kala Academy auditorium on Saturday, 17 July 2010 gave no hint whatsoever of the staggering concert that was to follow.

His choice of programme would daunt many older, more experienced hands. He began with three works (Preludes and Fugues numbers 1, 2 and 3, in C major, C minor and C sharp major respectively, from Book 1) from one of the most influential works in the history of western classical music, J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Incidentally, Glenn Gould’s recording of the C major work was placed on board the Voyager 1 spacecraft, to showcase the intelligence of our species should the vehicle be intercepted by aliens. The prelude is familiar to us as the accompaniment to Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria melody. From the very beginning broken arpeggios of the C major work, Clef displayed consistent musicianship at a very high level, and a precocious spirituality far beyond his years. In each of the preludes and fugues, his playing epitomised Bach’s blend of the pedagogical and the expressive.

Beethoven’s Sonata (number 27 in E minor) Opus 90 was composed during his late Middle period, and is unusually, a two-movement work. Clef’s rendition while immensely impressive, was not incandescent, and came across as a touch subdued. Beethoven described the first movement as “a contest between head and heart”, and one suspects that Clef’s head won the day.

Clef was in his element for Franz Liszt’s Wilde Jagd (Wild Hunt), the eighth of his twelve Transcendental Études. True to the tempo marking of Presto furioso in this bravura work, his hands scurried all over the keys with amazing dexterity, running with the hares, and hunting with the hounds. Most pianists would probably have ended their concert with this showstopper, but not Clef, who chose it to end the first half of his concert.

The second half was devoted to Frédéric Chopin, perhaps a nod to his 200th birth anniversary earlier this year.

Chopin’s mammoth Don Giovanni variations, opus 2, were actually scored for piano and orchestra, his first work for this genre. It was this work that prompted Schumann to exclaim about Chopin: “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” The whole work focuses on the duet between Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Zerlina (La ci darem la mano). After an explicit introduction of the theme, Clef took the listener on an emotional odyssey through the five variations, which culminated in a barn-storming Pollaca finale. The intonation of the piano had suffered a little after the demands of the Liszt, but Clef carried off the work nevertheless.

The second Chopin work was well-chosen by Clef to round off this concert, which had started with preludes and fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The preludes that introduce each fugue can be seen as prototypes for the poetic distillations of Chopin’s Preludes and Études —indeed, Chopin revered Bach’s “48”, as they are often known. Clef chose to end the concert with all twelve études from Chopin’s opus 10, dedicated by the composer to Liszt. This is a colossal undertaking, which Clef met head-on with his trademark steady nerves: calm and precise, without being glacial. In Clef’s young hands, these studies were transformed into music of real depth and feeling, combining dazzling technique with quite exceptional poetic insight. The last étude, the Revolutionary (allegedly written by Chopin after the Polish November Uprising of 1831), with its relentless left-hand semi-quaver runs, and right-hand cross-rhythms hammering out the theme, had the audience clamouring for more.

The encore was a delightful contrast to all that had preceded it, another Étude (opus 40, number 1), but by a living composer, of Ukrainian origin, Nikolai Girshevich Kapustin (1937- ). Kapustin is steeped in the traditions of both, classical virtuoso pianism and improvisational jazz, and this was amply reflected in this lollipop. Despite the necessary metronomic precision of the work, it exuded jazz-club verve through every pore of its being.

What comes through most of all in Clef’s playing is an unpretentious honesty, totally devoid of guile, airs or graces, and nerves of steel that would be the envy of a bomb-detonating squad. That he could unflinchingly play this behemoth of a programme, entirely from memory, despite relentless assaults from various angles by retina-searing flashbulbs, and slamming stage doors as cameramen nonchalantly sauntered back and forth throughout the performance, is testament to this. The “perfect” snapshot for either the press or for posterity can never be more important than the wonderful collective memory taken home by an audience of such a sterling concert, unmarred by unwanted lights and sounds. A compromise would have been to have a photo opportunity either before or after the performance.

There is a perceptible gravitas and greater depth of musical vision and pianistic sophistication in Clef’s playing since his last appearance in Goa a few years ago, and it is humbling to think that at such a tender age, his best years are ahead of him, yet to come. In this his twentieth year, Clef has certainly “scored” in Goa, if you will pardon the pun.

(This article appeared in the Herald Mirror, Goa, India on 25 July 2010)