Classical: A masterclass in metaphor

Sight Readings: Last week, three pianists galvanised audiences with the ir approaches to Beethoven, Debussy and new works;
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IF BACH'S 48 preludes and fugues are the Old Testament of music, Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas are the New, and pianists are drawn to them like moths to a flame. Some players get burnt, others retire singed, but the wonder is how many contrive such varied results while staying strictly faithful to the score. This is why the early recorded cycles by Schnabel, Backhaus and Kempff (and the recent ones by Brendel, Pollini, Goode and Perl) are all to be treasured. And this is the reason people flock to check out each new contender.

French-Canadian Louis Lortie is the new kid on the block, and his opening recital at the Wigmore last Friday put him straight up there among the gods.

Playing with very little pedal and a complete lack of pomp, he delivered five early sonatas with such bracing clarity that even the hackneyed Pathetique emerged fresh and new. All the poetry was there, but so was the grotesquerie and the Punch and Judy stuff. Not even the mobile phone let off (twice!) by some nerd in the stalls could destroy the magic of the event.

Lortie has hitherto been known as a supreme virtuoso in Liszt and Chopin, but Beethoven is the composer he prefers to teach his students at Imola, though with no sense of do-as-I-do - or as the dead greats have done it. "I tell them the answers are all there in the score," he says. Beethoven is, in his view, a fine weeder-out of self-aggrandising fakes: "This sort of music demands an absolute respect for history." I would have thought that spreading his sonata cycle over four months was a leisurely approach, but Lortie insists that it's a challenge. Each concert has to be perfect and must give the impression that Lortie has been doing nothing but prepare for it; he tapes and analyses the results. When I mention that I have been sent a set of his private recordings of his own live performances, some of which are markedly more exhilarating than his commercial releases on the Chandos label, his reaction is one of horror, but then he becomes thoughtful. Would Chandos one day release these? "I would love them to, but they never will. They feel they must have homogenised perfection. If you listen to my commercial recordings, you would think I always produced the same sound, but I play differently each night, and the pianos and the halls are all different. Many of my colleagues feel the same way about this and about being governed by that little red light in the studio. They all have their own DAT recordings, which they would love to see released. We keep hearing about the record companies' cash problems, so why don't they do this? It would be infinitely cheaper."

Well, why not? A ring-round of the big labels reveals no particular enthusiasm for the idea, though there are shining examples of its success, notably from the late, great Shura Cherkassky and the egregious Evgeny Kissin. As EMI's Peter Alward puts it: "The question is, do we want to be glorified pirates, or presenters of sonic excellence?"

Point taken, but I don't think the question will go away.

WHILE LORTIE was galvanising the Wigmore last Friday, Debussy expert Paul Roberts was performing a similar function at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and he followed it the next day with some illuminating masterclasses. Roberts is the author of a classic study of Debussy's links with painting and literature (Images, Amadeus Press), and this session drew its strength from such ideas.

All piano-playing is about illusion (a box of hammers in deep disguise), and it was fascinating to see what musical riches could be unlocked by a verbal phrase. We watched the magnificently named Cosimo Ajmone-Marsan (looking like a cross between Chopin and Aubrey Beardsley) struggle to make sense of Ravel's "Barque sur l'ocean", and suddenly succeed under Roberts's injunction to imagine "the ceaseless, irregular motion of the waves".

Music may not be "about" anything else, but metaphor is unavoidable if we want to talk about it.

ON MONDAY another notable London piano teacher took the stage at the South Bank. Andrew Zolinsky may just have won the San Francisco piano competition with a performance of "Rhapsody in Blue", but his goal is to expand the repertoire, and his programme reflected the fact. I had never heard of the Russian composer (cum construction engineer) Valentin Silvestrov and was astonished to see (thanks to their juxtaposition in this programme) how seamlessly his third sonata meshed with Liszt's prophetic "Nuages Gris", composed a century earlier. Zolinsky also gave us a volcanic "Ginastera" sonata, and a mysterious set of Brahms variations which are these days seldom played. Recitals are rarely so riveting.

When Zolinsky can afford it, he commissions new works, but he admits that it's an uphill task, not helped by the kind of radio chat he recently heard between Joan Bakewell and Murray Perahia, where new music was condemned root-and-branch. "If someone like Perahia - who has a huge following - can dismiss everything that is happening now, I really despair for the future," growls Zolinsky. "Andras Schiff is almost as bad. I love his Schubert and Bartok, but I wish he'd play something a bit more unusual."

You listening, Andras? Time to break that mould!