Julian Clef is a man of few words. I know this, as I spent a pleasant morning coaxing an interview out of him. But once he sits at a piano bench and starts to play, he has a lot to ‘say’.

Some works on Clef’s programme on 20 July 2013 (Preludes and Fugues in C sharp minor and major from J. S. Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier book 1; and Chopin’s ‘La ci darem la mano’ variations) had also featured on his 2010 recital here. Nevertheless, it was pure delight to hear him revisit them again.

When Clef plays Bach, one marvels at the grasp he has of the ‘architecture’ of the music. In book 1 especially, there are virtually no ‘markings’ on the ‘blueprint’ as it were, in the original score, so the task of phrasing and articulation rest onerously upon the interpreter. Clef’s poetic playing of his choice of three Preludes and Fugues (he added the set in E major to those mentioned above) led one to wonder if he concurs with András Schiff’s assertion that Bach was ‘the most romantic of all composers.’ What comes through in Clef’s playing, especially of Bach is a deep sense of humility bordering on reverence for music that is so ‘of another world’ that he takes the listener there as well.

Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ sonata (no. 21, Op. 53) is widely acknowledged in the pianistic world as one of his greatest and most technically challenging piano sonatas. Schiff goes even further, describing it as ‘the most brilliant of all his sonatas’, ‘one of the greatest pieces of music there is’, ‘a milestone in the history of writing for the instrument’. He avers that in this composition, the piano for the first time becomes a ‘symphony orchestra’ in Beethoven’s writing genius. Clef deftly fleshed out the different voices, the ‘orchestral instruments’ as it were, to use Schiff’s analogy. The transition between the second and the last movement was truly magical. Clef rightly took the Rondo at the Allegretto moderato pace that Beethoven intended, which makes so much more musical sense than the furious muddle that it can turn into in some hands. And it gives the prestissimo coda so much more impact. His sensitive use of pedal gave the aural texture that ‘wash of sound’ at exactly the right places (e.g. where the tonalities of C major and minor are ‘washed’ together), while crisply articulating the running passages without pedal but legato.

Clef ‘discovered’ Ukrainian composer Nikolai Girshevich Kapustin (1937- ) on YouTube and was instantly smitten. His Eight Concert Etudes Op. 40 (Prelude; Reveries; Toccatina; Reminescence; Raillery; Pastorale; Intermezzo and Finale) are imbued with effusive energy, a nod to several musical styles: jazz, ragtime, blues, boogie-woogie among them. Again here a sensible choice of tempo in each of them better highlights the inherent rhythmic nuances and syncopations. Had Clef been an applause-seeker, he could have milked this for all it was worth. There are several potentially show-stopping moments in this work. But his playing remained elegant throughout, never schmaltzy. Although he did metaphorically ‘let his hair down’ from time to time, notably in the springy ‘Raillery.’ Who wouldn’t?

Much has been made of Schumann’s exclamation on hearing Chopin’s Don Giovanni variations (Lá ci darem la mano): ‘Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!’ But Schumann seemed to have an uncanny instinct as a music critic. This was Schumann’s very first piece of music criticism, and curiously enough in the very last review of his career he heralded yet another genius: Johannes Brahms! Another Schumann connection is that the variations were made popular by Clara Wieck, Schumann’s future wife, who played the work at her concerts and could ‘explain every moment in it in terms of some particular scene from the opera.’ There is certainly a lot of dramatic tension here, ably exploited and brought to the fore by Clef with panache.

A well-deserved curtain call brought Clef back with Chopin’s Etude no. 9, Op. 10, a reflective fire-storm that only Chopin’s genius could have conceived.


(An edited version of this article was published in the Navhind Times Goa India on 22 July 2013)