Review: Bella Davidovich Wigmore Hall, London: The trouble with a level playing field

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Bella Davidovich

Wigmore Hall, London

was co-winner (with Halina Czerny-Stefanska) of the Warsaw Chopin Piano Competition in 1949. She is also the mother of the violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky. Born in Moscow, Davidovich has lived in the United States for the past 20 years and although she has made a fair number of recordings, she isn't a very frequent visitor to this country. Her Wigmore Hall recital reminded us - if we needed reminding - how varied Russian-trained pianists can be. Too varied for the description of a "Russian school" to make much sense. As Dmitri Alexeev (who was in the audience) recently said, Russia is an awfully large country, so it's not surprising it produces so many pianists.

None addresses the business of performing with less fuss. Davidovich bowed, wiped the keyboard quickly with a handkerchief, and started playing. She took to Schumann's lyrical three Fantasiestucke (Op 111) as if to her natural element, as relaxed as if playing for her own pleasure, producing a warm sound which was not very large but perfectly suited to the hall. But she also generalised the music's character, with a billowing line and ample dwelling on climactic notes. The last piece was rather laid back and the style seemed just a bit salon-ish for such deeply personal music.

In Schumann's Kreisleriana - an impulsive, sometimes wild, sometimes capricious but often tender cycle of pieces - Davidovich was less responsive to diverse character than concerned to make the whole work cohere. Which is not really the point, for it's a kaleidoscopic portrait of an eccentric. In the brilliant rush of the opening, Davidovich played merely automatically, without electricity. This is music in which nerves quiver and bristle, and are then calmed. The moments of calm were lovely, but we didn't get the craziness.

It seems odd, now, that Schumann sometimes accused Chopin of being wild, or found some of his pieces plain incomprehensible. took a very mellow view of Chopin's four Impromptus - her dynamic range was restricted, with hardly a real forte, and the middle section of the second Impromptu was under-powered. She preferred to stress by means of timing, sitting on certain notes at excessive length, and in the last piece, the Fantasie Impromptu, there were hardly any dynamic accents at all. Yet her fluency, and the naturalness of her shading, were deeply enjoyable, and it's no mean pianist who can spin out Chopin's mesmerising Berceuse with such loving tenderness - you realised the effort it must have cost only when she finished and heaved a huge sigh.

The effort was rather more evident in Chopin's Grande Polonaise brillante, which plodded along without any Slavonic elan at all, though the introductory Andante spianato was masterly until the coda. The piece is virtually impossible to bring off and most pianists are ill-advised to attempt it. Still, it would be curmudgeonly not to salute a fine pianist on a rare visit in her seventieth year, and after a taxing evening, she generously added a melancholy Chopin Mazurka and a glimpse of Albeniz's Iberia.

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