Emotional generosity

Classical: Ventsislav Yankoff; Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
You could hardly imagine a more venerable pedigree for a pianist than to have studied with Edwin Fischer, Wilhelm Kempff and Marguerite Long. Ventsislav Yankoff was born in Sofia and settled in Paris, where he won First Prize in the Marguerite Long/ Jacques Thibaud Competition in 1949. At the Wigmore Hall on Monday he evoked a vanished era, or perhaps pianists play like him only when they have 50 years' experience - perhaps some will play like that in the future.

Yankoff began with Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, digging deep into the piano and moulding phrases with sonorous grandeur, as if sculpting them from marble. As he got carried away, a gurgling vocal obbligato became increasingly noticeable, and in the Fugue, his fingers very nearly lost the battle with the evident tumult of his feelings.

In Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Yankoff would often broaden a variation indulgently towards its end, losing rhythmic discipline and clarity of line as he almost ground to a halt. Yet the power and the expressive qualities of the music were hardly lost in the longer term, even when the more delicate or playful variations were a bit smudged and sketchy. Above all, the grandeur and emotional impulse seemed all the more potent for being hard-won. Brahms himself might have played like this, especially when, as Clara Schumann complained, he no longer practised. The Fugue, though, was a bit too much of a struggle, for Yankoff grew too excited for his own good, and concentration evaporated in the heat of the moment.

That was the form for the evening: nothing was smooth and a lot was rough. Yet it was all honest and strongly felt. "Des Abends", the opening piece in Schumann's Fantasiestucke, Opus 12, was spun out with ample legato and deliciously warm tone, and if "Aufschwung" was laboured, the voice- leading in "Warum" was enunciated with relish. "In der Nacht" was passionate, yet Yankoff kept it on the rails and, strange to say, the worst mishaps in this treacherous cycle happened in the simplest, slow phrases of "Fabel", where Yankoff seemed almost too overwrought to manage the next note.

His way of searching was deceptive - at worst, it made you suspect what he found was wrong even when it was right, though at the end of the recital, he really did come unstuck once or twice in Prokofiev's Toccata. Being a pupil of Marguerite Long, there was special interest in his performance of her teacher, Faure's Sixth Nocturne. Had Yankoff been a less ardent player, his rhythmic liberties would have been maddening, and Faure's harmonic switches needed clearer timing and pedalling not to sound confusing. He also had a mannerism of delaying an important chord and then pouncing on it as if to say "Gotcha!". Some people in the audience seemed to lose patience, yet if they had exercised a bit, the emotional generosity - a quality of greatness - in Yankoff's playing put one in touch with the real thing.

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