Just a few words about a concert work before it is played can make such a difference. They create a rapport between performer and audience; the listener has a better grasp of the background to the piece and what to anticipate. And this makes for a much more attentive, appreciative and involved audience, which is as it should be at a performance, for the listener is just as important as the artist.
Eugene Alcalay’s concert programme at the Menezes Braganza hall on 15 January began with Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no. 13 in G minor HWV 439. Harpsichord music has been dismissed as dull and monotonous, and the great British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham famously compared it to the sound of “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm”. But played well, it is a treasure trove of delights. Alcalay’s playing infused the dance movements (Allemande-Courante-Sarabande-Gigue) with freshness and vitality, bringing out wonderful colours and nuances with a lightness of touch necessary when playing such music on a modern instrument.
The centrepiece of the programme was Schubert’s Piano Sonata in D minor (D 958), one of three of his last compositions for the instrument. They were written in his last months of life, neglected until around the early 20th century, and now hailed as his mature masterpieces. Schubert lived in Beethoven’s shadow, and there are many Beethovenian allusions in this sonata as well. The very key (‘tragic’ C minor) and the opening of the first movement are a nod to the ‘Pathetique’ and the theme of his 32 variations in C minor, and also echoes ‘Der Atlas’ from Schubert’s last songs, the Schwanengesang collection. Here Alcalay’s playing stood out for the refinement and variety of his tonal palette, the suppleness of his rhythm, the far-reaching structural grasp, the razor-sharp articulation, and the sophistication of his phrasing.
After the interval we heard another colossal work, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 7 in D major, Opus 10, no. 3. It is acclaimed as “one of the miracles of music” by pianist András Schiff, who ranks it as greater than even the ‘Pathetique’ that followed it. Schiff wryly commented in a masterclass that had Opus 10 no. 3 also been given a catchy nickname, it would be far more popular. There is a monothematic thought process that unites the sonata. The first four notes contain the seed of the entire composition. Alcalay approached this work with a mixture of spontaneity and deep reflection which is at the root of all great playing. There was polyphonic clarity and range of colour, with little details of the music’s inner weave illuminated with a whole spectrum of hues and textures. The transition from the dark second movement Largo e mesto (Broad and sad) in the sombre key of D minor (think of Mozart’s Don Giovanni) to the Menuetto was like a wild flower pushing its way out of the ground by the side of a grave, an affirmation of optimism and life and joy after unspeakable grief. The ending of the sonata was handled with the sleight-of-hand of a magician. Now you see it, now you don’t. Smoke and mirrors. Who said Beethoven couldn’t take the mick?
The last work on the programme was a particular highlight for me, as I had grown up listening to the orchestral version on an old, scratched long-playing record: Liszt’s Les Préludes – Symphonic poem no. 3. It is the earliest example of an orchestral work entitled “symphonic poem”. The piano arrangement we heard was undertaken by Liszt’s own pupil August Stradal.
Although its title refers to an Ode (called Les Préludes) from Alphonse de Lamartine’s Nouvelles meditations poétiques (1823), much of the music derives from Liszt’s own choral cycle Les quatre élémens (The Four Elements: Earth, Wind, Waves, Stars; 1844/5) based on poems written by the contemporary poet Joseph Autran, and indeed this work was originally conceived as the overture to it. It encompasses sections with a whole range of emotions (Question-Love-Storm-Bucolic Calm-Battle and Victory).
The Question motif is interesting, especially since this piece was juxtaposed in the concert programme just after the Beethoven, which had a Question of its own in its last movement. It calls to mind another, more well-known ‘question’ (“Muss es sein? Must it be?) Beethoven scrawled to his publisher under the introductory chords of the last movement of his String Quartet 16, opus 135. While Beethoven’s question in the piano sonata seemed to be a good-humoured one, Liszt’s question is much more philosophical, as is Beethoven’s question in the string quartet.
The dramatic ending of the Liszt would summon up the blood of any audience, and two encore requests followed. The first one was ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’, the sixth piano piece in the eighth of Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Opus 65. It is a sunny work, and Grieg wrote it for the 25th anniversary of his own wedding.
The next encore could not have been more of a contrast, but also was just as chipper: The Prelude from Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue in D flat major, taken from his cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues, opus 87. Shostakovich drew inspiration for his cycle from Bach’s monumental set of 48 preludes and fugues, The Well-Tempered Clavier.
If you felt a little Christmassy while hearing it, it is because the first bars contain the melody of the first line of ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’, and since Shostakovich wrote it on 20 December 1950, the reference is believed to be deliberate. Shostakovich delighted in taking the mick in some of his compositions. Perhaps one needed catharsis, some comic relief when trapped in a Stalinist hell. The whole prelude sways a little crazily, like a drunken pendulum struggling to break free from its pivot, just about managing not to hit the sides of its wooden prison. It ‘ends’ with a series of false endings: “Gotcha”, “Fooled ya, didn’t I?” He inserts four of them in quick succession sending the listener reeling before deciding that’s enough tomfoolery for one little prelude.
We couldn’t then be blamed as we staggered to our feet and wove our way home after this intoxicating evening.
It is regrettable that a Steinway artist was not able to perform upon a Steinway (believe me, we did try!) despite a perfectly good Steinway lying unused and unplayed-upon in Goa. It is bad for the piano, and terrible for performers and the public as well. There are only losers in this status quo, and I hope it changes and soon! The Liszt in particular would have sounded so much better upon a size D Steinway.
(An edited version of this article was published on 27 January 2015 in the Buzz section of the Navhind Times Goa India)