The second concert of 2019 saw the very welcome return to Leicester of the distinguished pianist Piers Lane. Few artists have made a greater contribution in recent decades to the musical life of this land and to that of his own country, Australia. When one read the programme notes, one was left gasping at the range of his various musical activities, performances ,recording, associations with so many fellow artists, all of which spoke of a life of continuing enquiry, adventure and enjoyment. As he bounded onto the platform, this was immediately communicated to the audience. How pleased he was, he said, to be back in Leicester in this fine setting for music and the thing was you believed every word of what he said.
He then embarked on a programme of immense challenges of various sorts in which he had clearly thought about how interesting it might be to contrast various composers and their works in an immediate juxtaposition and to see what emerges. Hence, he began with a beautifully clear, poised performance of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in F Sharp from Book 2 of the Well Tempered Clavier , which then morphed without interval into Chopin’s Impromptu No.2 and immediately then into his Nocturne in D Major . Was the point I wondered, besides giving the sense of someone playing for pleasure and also avoiding a break in concentration through not having to jump up and down to acknowledge applause, to draw attention to the resemblances between two composers who, to put it mildly, are not usually much linked?
Later two memories surfaced. Firstly, the thing that I noted about a recital this pianist gave some years ago in the same venue was that he was certainly not one to overly linger. Then my mind also went back to a talk given to a city music society by an equally eminent pianist in which he reviewed the problems of performing Chopin and in which he singled out the invitation the composer can seem to make to some artists to display their own feelings at every turn by constantly ignoring the pulse of the music. I remember that he singled out the most famous Chopin exponent of my youth ,Arthur Rubinstein, as very rarely falling into that trap.
Clearly neither does Piers Lane. The juxtaposition of Chopin with Bach threw into outline even in the Nocturne the musical argument which emerged in a way that would be unlikely to happen in a swooning interpretation. If that was the aim, a relatively narrow range of dynamics helped. In the Nocturne a real pianissimo was held back until the very end of the piece and was all the more effective for that. Perhaps I was not entirely persuaded that there wasn’t a shade more delicacy and poetry to be found in the piece but the performance certainly held one’s attention.
From then on in this concert of fascinating juxtapositions it was an exhilarating gallop to the finish, featuring Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.2 and three movements from Stravinsky’s Petrushka,with a Mazurka in the mix. The first was given an enormously powerful performance, with immense energy in the first two movements and an overwhelming funeral march with a bass as black as black can be, all of this then to be followed by that extraordinary last movement, delivered here with a lightness and swiftness of touch which after the solemnity of the previous movement totally conveyed who knows what except that there is probably no greater surprise in music than when the movement abruptly finishes. And that even when you know it is coming to an end sometime soon!
There is nothing enigmatic about Petrushka nor was there in this performance which glittered and danced to perfection. I am not much of a fan of transcriptions. Often too much of the original is lost. Some years ago, though, the International Festival in the city finished with The Rite of Spring in a two piano arrangement ,like here the work of the composer, and I went away thinking it was as overwhelming as the orchestral version. The percussive qualities of the piano in particular lent an extraordinary power to the sound. So it was here, though perhaps something was lost in the more introspective scene in Petrushka’s cell. However, the outer movements and in particular in The Shrovetide Fair the glitter and the dancing energy conveyed made for a hugely exhilarating ending to the concert, with playing of an order that left one in wonder how fingers could cope.
It was met with an ovation which demanded an encore, even though the pianist had already been generous with his time. It was at one with the thought behind the whole recital and its range that we got a short piece by Lyadov entitled The Music Box,which quickly ran down and ended the recital with a twinkle!