Few pianists give as little away with their body-language as Ashley Wass does in his neat dark suit: impassive from start to finish, he even acknowledges tumultuous applause without cracking a smile.
But the performances of this 35-year-old British pianist are distinguished by a white-hot intensity, and this recital was no exception. Opening with Beethoven’s ‘32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor’, he revealed a rare profundity in this often underrated work.
I have seldom heard such power in the volcanic variations, and never such poetry in the lyrical ones: subdividing the work into long paragraphs separated by significant silences, he allowed Beethoven’s Houdini-like inventions to well up as though out of a subterranean stillness. If he hasn’t yet recorded this work, he definitely ought to now.
Everything else in this technically-immaculate recital was impressive - and Samuel Barber’s ‘Piano Sonata in E flat minor’ above all. Though that ambitious work – written to be premiered by Horowitz to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the American League of Composers – was to my ears still rebarbative.
Liszt’s ‘Three Petrarch Sonnets’ were delivered with a velvet touch, and Wass’s rendering of Liszt’s ingenious arrangement of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony was Herculean in the most humane sense of the word. Liszt’s project had nothing to do with vanity – piano arrangements were the closest most people got to hearing the symphonies, a century and a half ago – and as Wass demonstrated, Liszt really did distil their essence down to two (admittedly formidable) hands; his ‘Orage’ was Wass’s suitably formidable encore.
There’s something awesome about this pianist’s intellectual detachment: Yevgeny Sudbin, who took the stage the next day, is of a comparable calibre, but his playing is typically hot-blooded. Liszt’s ‘Funerailles’ was an elegy for the executed Hungarian revolutionaries of 1849, and in Sudbin’s hands it emerged as something both magnificent and terrible.
And if he short-changed the cello-like melody in Chopin’s third Ballade in his hurry to get to the concluding fireworks, his treatment of Skryabin’s mysterious and visionary fifth sonata was persuasive. His sign-off was the full-on virtuosity of Horowitz’s arrangement of Liszt’s arrangement[sic] of Saint-Saens’s ‘Danse macabre’, followed by his own crazy arrangement of Chopin’s ‘Minute waltz’.
But the sweet brilliance of the Scarlatti sonatas with which he had begun were what finally lingered with in the mind.