Arts: Variations on a theme

Pianists Lortie, Kenner, De Larrocha and Grante have given London a dynamic week of recitals. By Adrian Jack
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The Independent Culture
The Canadian pianist Louis Lortie was bathed in an orange and purple glow for his performance of Chopin's complete Studies at the Queen Elizabeth Hall the Sunday before last. Rather a Wagnerian colour scheme for this music, surely, and why was the audience left in almost total darkness, unable to consult programme notes, let alone a score? Well, there was no need to check Lortie's accuracy, which was pretty well absolute, and his sovereign technical command seemed unassailable. Yet in the most powerful pieces, like the very first of Op 10, he went less for glitter than linear strength, and sometimes, in the first, fourth and fifth Studies of Op 25, the weight he gave the treble unduly simplified interesting textures. Then again, you could argue that the light, fluffy touch he brought to right-hand double notes in Op 10 No 7 and Op 25 No 8 contradicted Chopin's legato markings. Not that Lortie is alone in playing the pieces that way. His left hand was certainly strong when called upon, yet a lot of the time it was unduly subservient, too: for instance, the poignancy of the posthumous A flat Study really depends on an almost equal balance between the throbbing triplet chords in the right and the walking "accompaniment" in the left, which Lortie reduced to a limp background.

Altogether, disappointingly conventional interpretations, though sustaining very high standards within such limitations, Lortie could feel justified in relaxing with a Nocturne, twirling a bewitching Waltz and then making off to Debussy's L'Isle joyeuse, where he hoisted his flag and roared out his huzzas, regardless of the piano's ability to resonate satisfactorily in response to that kind of assault. The result was an ugly clatter.

Chopin never designed his Studies to be heard as complete sets, and let's hope the recent fashion doesn't become too prevalent. But he did plan his Preludes that way. They seem to have lost some of their old popularity as pianists try to jump ever higher hurdles, but the ill-advertised BBC lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday offered the chance to hear them played by the American pianist Kevin Kenner. Two years ago, at the QEH, Kenner gave the best performance I have ever heard in the concert hall of all four of Chopin's Ballades. Although he won the Warsaw Chopin Competition in 1990, he seems, happily perhaps, to be under-exploited commercially, although he has made a CD of Chopin's Preludes on a Polish label not marketed in Britain.

His performance on Wednesday showed the most generous imaginable range of expression, strong emotional commitment and the kind of balanced musical judgement very few artists achieve. Apart from playing coy with two railing outbursts towards the end of the 18th Prelude, and if allowance is made for a few wrong notes in the one following, there wasn't a single detail that didn't seem inevitable and right, despite some creative and perfectly justified licence taken with Chopin's dynamic markings. Hopefully, the BBC will archive the tape.

The prolonged applause that greeted the Catalan pianist Alicia de Larrocha at the Wigmore Hall on Friday evening was like the proverbial wave of love. The weather was as sultry as the long, lazy melody in the last of her selection of six Danzas espanolas by Granados. It seems like heresy to criticise her way with this music, whose clearly defined, sectional forms she sets in a rather classical and objective perspective, and although her rubato seemed natural and stylish, it's possible, surely, to imagine stronger projection and panache. Abandon simply isn't in her nature. Yet in Schumann's taxing and treacherous Carnaval this septuagenarian caught very nicely the crazy enthusiasm of hectic youth, not pushing the music beyond its period, but true to its warm innocence and concise, disciplined scale.

Technically, there were a few smudges, particularly in "Valse Allemande", and she declined the challenge to play "Reconnaissance" pianissimo, as marked, but, with her small hands, Larrocha commanded rich chords, and if the final "March against the Philistines" started like a struggle uphill, its determined rhythms pulled very slightly out of shape, that wasn't altogether inappropriate. "Aveu" was particularly nice, and expressed a sort of shy eagerness.

Carlo Grante could hardly have been more unassuming and relaxed in his manner at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday evening. He played a keyboard connoisseur's programme of music by Leopold Godowsky, all based on Schubert and Chopin, but despite the elaboration of Godowsky's technical means, it was far from being an evening of barnstorming. The opening variations of the Passacaglia on the opening of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony hovered on the brink of audibility. Until the final fugue, the music is both luscious and, for all its intricacy, wistful in effect, with its chromatic harmonies recalling Percy Grainger. Five transcriptions of Schubert songs were like miniature sets of variations, though the piece based on Die junge Nonne preserves the whole shape of the song, including the switch to the major mode and final Alleluias. Grante's easy, apparently casual manner enhanced the nostalgic effect of Godowsky's late-Romantic gloss on music from an earlier, less decadent period.

The real curiosities of the evening were 12 of Godowsky's unbelievably complex 53 Studies on Chopin Etudes, including three based on the same piece, Op 10 No 5, each turning the original textures inside out in a different way and rendering Chopin pretty well unrecognisable. Just a look at Godowsky's scores is enough to make your heart sink, so it was hardly surprising if the grandiose amplification of Op 10 No 8 seemed a bit congested. But the arrangement for left hand only of the "Revolutionary" Study - one of the more straightforward transformations - sounded very effective and drew spontaneous applause. This gave Carlo Grante a welcome break, but otherwise he seemed quite happy to jump one startling hurdle after another, scarcely drawing breath in between.

Only in the elaboration of the "Winter Wind" Study did he seem to struggle just a bit. He ended in a lighter mood yet on a level of unsurpassed ingenuity, with the penultimate piece of Godowsky's collection, which combines the "Black Note" and "Butterfly" Studies. Fascinating stuff, played as if it were not designed to shake the earth, but - not so simply - to amuse.