Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Lucerne Piano Festival 2005 and Piano Offstage!

KKL and othe venues November 22-24

Sonatas in E Major, D 157 (unfinished) & in F Minor, D 625
Vallée d’Obermann
Il penseroso
St. François d’Assise «La prédication aux oiseaux»
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 (Version A. Volodos)



EMANUEL AX 23 November
Chen Yi Ballade ‘Ji-Dong-Nuo’ [World premiere]
Brahms Ballades, Op.10
Saariaho Ballade [World premiere]
Liszt Ballade No.2 in B minor
Chopin The Four Ballades

24 November
Webern 5 Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5 (1909), Version for String Orchestra (1930)
Mozart Piano Concerto in B flat Major, K 456
Schumann Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61

A solitary Steinway standing alone on the large stage of this great concert hall awaiting its next occupant is an intimidating sight, and brings up thoughts about the strangeness of the travelling virtuoso's life.

Volodos began with an early, little known and unfinished Schubert sonata. Fierce dynamic contrasts served to fill the space and get the music across to the farthest listeners high under the roof. Once ears are switched on, the quietest pianissimi can be enjoyed in this hall from which all unwanted noise is excluded by careful design. His other Schubert sonata choice, not one of the late greats, will also have been unfamiliar to most who were hearing it, and it cast a spell with the exquisitely turned trills that feature in its first movement.

After the interval it was the the portentous Valleé d'Obermann and other overblown Liszt, not to my personal taste - the music, not Volodov's way with it. The fireworks of the Hungarian Fantasy No 12, which completed the short scheduled programme, excited under the mastery of Volodos's analytic contol of timbre and balance. Then it was encore time, five of them, the Berlioz/Liszt Rakoczy March rousing the audience to a standing ovation and finally an exquisitely refined (if anachronistic) rendition of the slow movement of a Marcello/Bach oboe concerto. Volodos's comprehensive command of Liszt's faded grandeur could not be faulted and was indeed a benchmark for the pianists to follow during the week, and for the festival as a whole.

Lucerne Piano, for reasons deserving scrutiny, is mainly stuck in the canonic repertoire of mostly nineteenth century composers, whilst the summer festival has leapt into the twenty first. Perhaps marketing constraints explain much?

An altogether fresher experience was to be had by pausing afterwards to join the less formal scene in the adjacent Luzerne Hall. A huge audience had come to hear the inauguration of Piano Offstage! by a succession of international jazz pianists taking turns separately, and in pairs at two pianos, before they each undertook schedules of appearances about town during the festival week, all with free admission. This was an enlivening way to send us out into the cold thoroughly contented.

Emannuel Ax's programme had attracted us (also to hear it at Wigmore Hall some days before) because he was to premiere three new works. But the American Kernis's promised new work did not reach the platform, no explanation why.

We hoped Ax would have had it ready for Lucerne, but again it was dropped from the programme, with neither explanation nor substitution. The two other new pieces were brief and unremarkable; under ten minutes of new music together, played from the music, the pages turned by the pianist, whose fumbling with them had got him critical notice in London! Chen Yi's Ji-Dong-Nuo was a little study in Chinoiserie, much of it monodic, and Saariaho's piece (called Ballade only because "that was what Manny wanted", so we were told in London by the composer) will have done little for her considerable reputation; this contemporary tokenism did nothing to build bridges.

Far more serious, the short-comings in London of Ax's accounts of Brahms and Chopin were unimproved in Lucerne, and the different acoustic brought none of the hoped for personal insights that his thematic programme of "Ballads" promised. Emannuel Ax relies excessively upon the pedal to mask technical fallibility, with little clarification of textures or attention to specific characterisation of the pieces.

Newcomers to the Brahms Ballades would not have guessed that the first was about a scary Scottish patricide, nor would they have noticed the extraordinary texture created by Brahms in the middle section of the fourth Ballade. It was to Ax's disadvantage that the newly re-released revelatory accounts of them by Sokolov were fresh in our ears [Naive/Opus 111 OP30421]. The four Chopin Ballades tested Ax's technique to its limit, leaving little scope for creative interpretation. Best was last; a single encore, a nicely played Chopin Nocturne.

The day was saved however by Piano Offstage! - the other strand of Piano 2005. We repaired to the KKL Seebar, where Al Copley from USA was entertaining. An inventive pianist-singer, open to a wide range of styles and influences, he was a pleasant companion for after concert drinks. For the festival a fine instrument had been installed to raise bar music there to an uncommon level. Copley's Swiss recording Rainy Summer, made in Wengen [One Mind Records OMCD 1203] demonstrates that jazz pianists have nothing to fear in comparison with their claasical confrères in terms of skill and imagination and can be warmly recommended to piano afficionados, as too his live recital from the Montreux Festival [OMCD 1201] both much appreciated souvenirs.

We sampled several of the bar-dates which the jazz pianists undertook, but were disappointed that there were few dedicated listeners there for Piano Offstage! However, in the KKL foyer the audiences en route to the main concerts stopped beforehand to enjoy some minutes of fine jazz playing on an eye-catching Ferrari-red Steinway (Alkis Steriopoulos, pictured by Michael Bulholzer) before proceeding to the greater solemnities in the KKL Konzertsaal.

Report is that on past experience news spread by word of mouth as the week continues leads to increased support for the best of the chosen bar-pianists.

Our musical stay in Switzerland, which had taken in opera in Zurich and Lucerne, and Mozart & Bruckner symphonies in the KKL (Dohnanyi with the NDRSO) terminated with the most satisfying and thought provoking of all the piano-centred events.

On paper, a concert of Webern, Mozart and my unfavourite Schumann symphony looked unremarkable. But Daniel Harding's inspirational conducting of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra combined with Pierre-Laurent Aimard's imagination and intelligence to create a memorable event.

The Schumann No 2, not often heard in UK these days, received a rare performance of compelling ardour and attention to detail (natural trumpets in a modern instrument orchestra) one in which neither players nor conductor spared themselves, bringing the concert to a close with a prolonged and well deserved ovation. Before that, Webern's inexhaustible miracles of modernity and string sonority in his tiny pieces Op 5 (1905) had demonstrated how wonderfully the most fragile sounds carry in the KKL.

Mozart's Bb concerto K456, one of his loveliest, with the slow movement's reminder of Barbarina's lost pin, was given an ideally unified and perfectly balanced performance with soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and received a response which made it impossible to leave it there.*

Aimard is better known for promoting cutting-edge contemporary repertoire; he had captivated a full house at Lucere during the summer festival with a Boulez marathon! He bound the whole concert together with a master stroke, giving us as encore a group of concentrated miniatures by Kurtag which mirrored those of Webern a century before. The first, a spare unadorned single line for left hand alone was another demonstration of how the simplest tones can reach the whole of this great large hall, and the group left the audience with food for thought and talk at the interval. That is how concerts can be.

Later in the week there is to be a short late-night recital by composer-pianist Thomas Larcher which promises more than tokenism towards the present; he will intersperse Schubert pieces with one of his own and one by the radical Englishwoman Rebecca Saunders. Larcher's idiosyncratic discography for ECM (e.g. Schubert + Schönberg) shows how creative can be juxtapositions of music from the past with music of the forward-looking present. May a critic from London venture impertinently to suggest that Michael Haefliger and his team could do well to involve Aimard and Larcher in discussions of how to make the main 'classical' Piano festival catch up with Lucerne Summer which, from an international perspective, has got it right?

And, from the other end of the spectrum, we were glad to note that the great fortepianist Andreas Staier (a Schubert specialist) is booked for next year; but that is another, and an increasingly topical, story in the complicated piano world!

*(Aimard's performance has prompted me to explore urgently Aimard's new CD of three Mozart concertos - Warner Classics 2564-62259-2; review to follow)

Thanks to Michel Paparone of KKL for support and hospitality at Lucerne, and for a great souvenir -the properly acclaimed DVD of Mahler V, recorded live in the KKL by Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and to Al Copley for a selection of his invigorating jazz CDs.

© Peter Grahame Woolf