Take it from an old hand

Solti Presents Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
If a musician as distinguished and experienced as Sir Georg Solti recommends two young pianists, you feel bound to take them pretty seriously. He did so at the Wigmore Hall on Friday, briefly and tactfully, saying he didn't want to raise expectations unreasonably, but pointing out that today things are probably tougher than ever for musicians trying to launch careers. He also said that he hopes to establish this kind of presentation as an annual event.

Formalities over, the Belgian pianist Patricia Pagny began with four Scarlatti sonatas, in F minor, D major, G minor and G major. Her performances were very confident and slowly characterised - so full of incident that I kept imagining what they would have been like on the harpsichord. Not coloured and shaded like this, because the harpsichordist has to use rhythmic shaping principally for expression. But here there was just as much tugging at rhythms as any harpsichord player would indulge in, and the expressive effect was rather cluttered.

The impression that Pagny had prepared the tiniest inflections and stuck to them was confirmed in Chopin's "Funeral March" sonata. It certainly seems to be popular in London this season, but I'll bet that no other performance has been, nor ever will be, quite like this one. After the brief motto-cum-introduction, the first theme was stretched then contracted, slow-fast, in a way that was at least unusual, and there were some interesting new points of emphasis in the left-hand accompaniment. At the very problematic repetitions of the motto that launch the brief development, Pagny almost stopped, as if Chopin were thinking how to continue, which is one solution to an awkward transition. The first movement was solidly sustained, if lacking the ultimate degree of passion. The Scherzo was crystal clear, too, but the funeral march was dreary, which was not all Pagny's fault, because it has to be nothing less than inspired to hold the attention. The finale chattered away, as Chopin himself said, though distinctly syncopated accents eclipsed its triplet motion.

The large audience seemed enthusiastic, even if there were some strong expressions of dissent during the interval. Sir Georg says that when he first heard Pagny he was struck by her lyricism. There wasn't much evidence of that, and her encore, "Feux d'artifice", was explosive in an almost warlike way. The final impression was of straining after effect.

The Bulgarian pianist Lora Dimitrova now lives in Britain and has already performed in London a good deal. Her playing was much less studied than Pagny's, fluent and comparatively straightforward. She launched the second half of the evening with Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor, which she played very powerfully; the piano boomed uncomfortably in this relatively small hall.

But two pieces from Ravel's Miroirs - "Oiseaux tristes" and "Une barque sur l'ocean" - showed that Dimitrova could colour delicately, too. She also spun the opening section of Chopin's fourth Ballade - one of the most searching tests of a pianist - with a fine control of its tension and apparent total naturalness. The melody's reappearance, when it is floridly expanded, should have been more relaxed, but after that the music took over in a splendid flow of passion, and the wicked last two pages were reeled off proudly. She didn't panic. Dimitrova's encore, the Liebestod from Tristan, was played with real romantic generosity and, legitimately, more rhythmic licence than would be appropriate at the end of the opera.

Sir Georg gallantly appeared on stage at the end with two huge bunches of flowers, and said something that sounded very enthusiastic, but with such Samurai-like ferocity that I couldn't make out a word.