Cédric Tiberghien


Cédric Tiberghien

Last month, London’s Wigmore Hall invited Cédric Tiberghien to give a recital to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice. He devised a program comprising works composed between 1914 and 1918 from the main European countries involved in the conflict, France (of course), England, Germany, Poland, and Russia. The music was not necessarily about the war. Unlike the Second World War, which produced music explicitly responding to the conflict, such as Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony and Prokofiev’s War Sonatas, the First World War mostly produced either morale-boosting patriotic music or elegies for a vanishing way-of-life. Elgar provided both. Ravel denied that his La Valse had anything to do with the war, in spite of its apocalyptic climax, and Holst wrote Mars before the fighting began, so there is little that would qualify as war music per se. For me, the most touching centenary tribute was hearing the audience joining in Roses of Picardy at the Last Night of the Proms, communal singing that movingly summoned the ghosts of a lost generation.


On Sunday, Tiberghien brought the Wigmore Hall program to Chicago. If the chosen pieces didn’t evoke war directly, the music was nevertheless haunted by it. He started with Scriabin’s Vers La Flame, a work that is one long crescendo, progressing from an uneasy stillness to a searing conflagration of tremolos and pulsating chords. It was Scriabin’s attempt to trigger the apocalypse with music, not a premonition of war, but it served as a fitting prelude, performed with coruscating intensity by Tiberghien. As a complete contrast, he then chose three Improvisations by Frank Bridge written for Douglas Fox, a pianist who, like Paul Wittgenstein, lost his right arm during the war. These were attractively, if somewhat conventionally, lyrical in a style that seemed to prefigure the music of William Alwyn by twenty years of so.

The heart of the recital was a performance of all twelve Debussy Études, spread across the program. I believe these are his finest piano works, studies in composition rather than pianistic technique. The self-imposed limitations of each one, such as concentrating on thirds, fourths, or octaves, liberated him to explore sonorities and textures for their own sake in a way that would influence composers for the rest of the century. Tiberghien is an ideal interpreter of this music, because he applies a seemingly limitless palette of pianistic colors with pinpoint precision. He balances chords with such a hyperfine sensitivity and plays rapid figurations with such a seamless legato, that the percussive character of the piano is completely disguised. The result is music of extraordinary clarity, with every detail in perfect focus no matter how complex the sonic image. And yet it is far from clinical; he evidently feels an affectionate warmth for this music, while concealing the virtuosity needed to bring it off. I also love his ability to make time stand still, such as in the central section of Pour les accords, a moment of quiet contemplation in the middle of one of the more turbulent studies.

The program also included twelve Szymanowski studies, which are even more elusive than the Debussy, more agitated and less sensuous, a bridge perhaps between his earlier expressionist style and his later more impressionistic music. It ended with a genuine rarity, an early piece by Hindemith called In Einer Nacht. This is rhapsodic music unlike anything I have heard by him before. It apparently conveys the increasingly frenzied dreams of someone asleep, starting with a slow spare introduction, before the sleeper’s subconscious takes him on a series of excursions including a nocturnal waltz and an eccentric foxtrot, before ending with a double fugue – perhaps a nightmarish reminiscence of assignments as a composition student.

A fascinating program then, which conveyed the eclecticism of a transitional period in classical music, without delving into every contemporary trend such as atonality. It was also a welcome chance to remind myself what a profoundly musical pianist Cédric Tiberghien is in the kind of repertory he appears to love the most. His performance of Gaspard de la Nuit a couple of years ago, one of the finest I have ever heard, still lingers in the memory. He makes such music seem effortless to play, an illusion sadly destroyed as soon as I sit at a piano and try it for myself. On the other hand, he didn’t have time to memorize the music for this particular recital, a limitation I share, so at least we have something in common.





Denis Matsuev


Denis Matsuev

Seeing Denis Matsuev bound onto the stage of Chicago’s Symphony Center wearing a frock coat, white tie, and impeccably coiffed hair evoked a more glamorous age when pianists were cultural icons to be idolized by an adoring public. There is a classic photo of Van Cliburn, also in white tie, sitting at the piano on a stage strewn with roses surrounded by star-struck fans. He stares into the heavens as if oblivious of the pressing crowd, an artist entirely absorbed by musical inspiration. Matsuev also spent a good deal of time in elevated contemplation; he was into the second subject of Beethoven’s C-major Sonata, op. 2 no. 3, before he glanced down to see what his fingers were doing. I spent the rest of the recital oscillating between two opposing views, either that he was self-consciously playing to the gallery, pandering to our preconceptions of what a romantic artist should look like, or that he was a genuine musician with an intense need to communicate. I eventually decided that he was an amalgam of the two, expressively over-indulgent at times, but also capable of one of the most moving performances of one of Prokofiev’s wartime sonatas I have ever heard. It was an appropriate end to a concert on the centenary of the end of the First World War.


There is no doubting his virtuosity, of course. He dispatched the Beethoven sonata, one of his most energetic, with rhythmic aplomb, although the slow movement was stylistically jarring for a classical sonata, with dreamy meditation giving way to pounding octaves that could have depicted the damnation of Faust. He then played a piece that should have fit him like a glove, the Rachmaninov Corelli Variations, but which raised new doubts. The opening theme usually sounds somewhat melancholy, but Matsuev played it very slowly with an exaggerated sense of desolate introspection. While it was extremely beautifully played and would have made a very touching conclusion, it seemed completely inappropriate to start the work like this. What was the point of carrying on? However, the rest of the piece was mostly enjoyable, played either with power, clarity and rhythmic verve, or, as in the haunting 15th variation, with a moving simplicity.

My concerns were assuaged by the second half, which began with a lovely elegiac performance of Chopin’s 4th Ballade, which ended with a scintillating coda, and continued with a Tchaikovsky miniature, his Méditation, op. 72, which was the ideal vehicle for Matsuev’s expressive sensibility. However, it was the Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 that was the highlight of the afternoon. This is one of the three great “war” sonatas written during the Second World War (although I think the 3rd Sonata written in 1917 is also drenched in wartime dread). The seventh sonata is the most motoric of the three, with the much of the first and all of the last movement driven by an inexorable, and sometimes frightening, momentum, presumably depicting the mechanistic inhumanity of modern warfare. Matsuev played these with restrained speeds that made their cumulative power seem even more overwhelming than usual. They were also heavily pedaled, which may have sacrificed some clarity but produced considerable orchestral weight. But it was the slow movement that I found revelatory. Here the introspection that I found exaggerated in the Rachmaninov was completely appropriate. If anything, the music was emotionally subdued, as if numbed by the ongoing tragedy, before the final perpetuum mobile cruelly stamped out any lingering sense of hope. I have often found this piece to be viscerally exciting but emotionally empty. In this performance, it was as powerful a condemnation of war as I have heard.

There is always a fine line between genuine expression and self-conscious emoting, and I think that Matsuev crosses this line more frequently than I would like. He clearly revels in the showmanship of the modern piano recital, as his four encores demonstrated, ending with a dazzling jazz improvisation that seemed determined to pulverize whatever memories of Oscar Peterson we might have had. Afterwards, he jumped off the stool and whipped off his white tie. And why not, even if he would have been penalized for excessive celebration in the NFL? However, even if some of his expressive mannerisms seem a little too calculated, he also has a beautiful soft touch that can draw you in and either seduce you or move you in the right music. That is also worth celebrating.


Lucas Debargue


Lucas Debargue

The photo that is most often used to publicize  Lucas Debargue’s burgeoning career is somewhat enigmatic. Is he bored or in despair? A tragic Dostoevskian anti-hero numbed by guilt or a left-bank intellectual contemplating the banality of his existence? Is he perhaps auditioning for the role of a young Shostakovich dreading the Gulag? He certainly doesn’t give the impression of reveling in the acclaim that has accompanied him since he was a major prize-winner in the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015 at the age of 24, just four years after he decided to commit himself to a musical career. I had seen videos of him in Moscow that year playing with a ferocious concentration, so I rather expected him to be brooding and intense at the reception following his recital at Chicago’s Symphony Center on Sunday. In fact, he was relaxed and engaging, obviously a very thoughtful and serious artist, but amiable company nonetheless.

When he first appeared to play the first of two Schubert sonatas, he fidgeted with the piano stool and then stared at the keyboard for what seemed like a minute or more. Apparently, he feels the need to empty his mind of other distractions before playing, but he might also have been deciding what to play because he swapped the published program, playing the more genial A-major Sonata, D664, before the austere A-minor Sonata, D784. This order seems to make much more sense. He played the first sonata with a flowing elegance and unaffected simplicity, brightening his tone for the sprightly finale. At the reception, someone complained that the A-minor sonata was insufficiently “tragic”, but I think he played the stark octaves at the beginning of the work with an appropriately grave dignity. Although I do believe the music is a response to the diagnosis of his ultimately fatal illness, Schubert is not a self-indulgent romantic, bewailing his fate. Instead, I think he is someone quietly coming to terms with a new reality, occasionally erupting in anger, but struggling to keep his composure. Perhaps it’s because I’m English, but I find his music to be so moving because of its Elgarian restraint. And Debargue played the tender second subject with achingly beautiful harmonic coloring, perfectly judged. On the other hand, the finale was a whirlwind – I doubt Schubert could conceive of it being played that fast, especially since there is no rallentando at the end when the triplet runs are played as double octaves.

The second half consisted of a single work, Szymanowski’s Second Piano Sonata. This is not a work I have heard before, and I was a little disappointed to read in the program notes that it was written in 1910 before the composer’s journeys to the Mediterranean made him infatuated with the orient. I was looking forward to the shimmering exoticism of his later style, but the sonata is starkly expressionist, conveying Viennese angst rather than Persian perfume. Apparently, Szymanowski was worried that nobody would be able to play it, although a young Artur Rubinstein, then an avid exponent of modern music, took it in his stride. It is frighteningly complex music, with a relentlessly virtuosic first movement that seems to be perpetually climbing but never quite reaching the summit. It is tonal music but I couldn’t help thinking of the second Viennese school, since it conveyed a vehemence that reminded me of some of Schoenberg’s orchestral music at the time. The mood changes at the start of the second movement with a disarmingly jaunty theme preceding a set of quieter variations. The respite is only temporary though because the movement finishes with an angular fugue that builds inexorably to a densely chorded climax. Somehow, Debargue was always able to propel the music forward with vigor and clarity, never allowing the sheer density of notes to clog the sense of flow. It would have been impressive just as a feat of memory, but to be in such command of the elaborate musical architecture was truly remarkable. The only sign of effort was that he played the second half without a jacket.

The recital amply justified the critical reputation that preceded him. In spite of the publicity photo, he seems to be enjoying his decision to abandon science after his graduation and devote himself to the piano. His encore was a free-wheeling improvisation, demonstrating his love of jazz, which he thinks represents the greatest musical achievement of the 20th century. So a difficult man to button-hole. When asked what was the most difficult music he knew, he said the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. Rachmaninov and Liszt sound impressive, but their music lie naturally under the hands (well, hands as large as Debargue’s, anyway), whereas Beethoven’s never do. His answers were provocative and perhaps a little too clever – maybe the response of a left-bank intellectual who doesn’t want to be banal.

Kirill Gerstein


Kirill Gerstein

As a lover of classical music, it is in my interest that more people attend live concerts, so that places like Symphony Center can afford to invite pianists like Kirill Gerstein to Chicago. That requires me to suppress my supercilious tendency to tut-tut under my breath when neophytes clap between movements, as many did when Pollini performed a couple of weeks ago to a packed auditorium. The irony, of course, is that neophytes have historical authenticity on  their side. Concertgoers regularly clapped between movements in Beethoven’s day, sometimes demanding encores before a piece was finished. This afternoon, Gerstein had a more select (i.e., smaller) audience, who never once violated modern protocols, which meant that an incongruous silence followed each of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, even though they were all played with a dazzling bravura. To compensate for this collective, and increasingly bizarre, restraint, I had to give him an immediate standing ovation and even nearly shouted ‘bravo.’

Playing all of the Transcendental Studies in one go is a monumental achievement that few have attempted. This is the first live performance I have heard in nearly forty years. I saw Lazar Berman play them all in London’s Festival Hall, while keeping half an eye on Alfred Brendel in the opposite box following the score. I could see him nod approvingly during the final Chasse-neige. A lion amongst pianists, and the latest legend to emerge from the Soviet Union, Berman still needed a breather half-way through, abruptly leaving the stage for several minutes. Astonishingly, Gerstein barely seemed to break a sweat, even when galloping across the Steppes at break-neck speed in Mazeppa, somehow concealing the third arm that must surely have been playing the central thirds. The congested textures of Wilde Jagd were conveyed with rhythmic élan and the mischievous  double notes of  Feux Follets with apparently effortless facility. I had to remind myself how breathtaking his achievement was by looking at the score when I returned home.

Daniil Trifonov has been making waves with recent performances of the studies, and my recollection was that his recording was more probing than Gerstein’s, also released last year. For example, Gerstein seems too impatient to portray the contemplative vision of Paysage; he plays it a whole minute faster than Trifonov. However, a quick comparison of Gerstein’s recordings with today’s performance suggests either that his interpretation has evolved or that the recording studio made him a little more cautious. This afternoon, there seemed to be a more confident swagger in the faster passages and a greater lyrical freedom in the gentler music, especially Ricordanza (although Paysage was still too fast). Harmonies du Soir ended with a truly majestic climax, while the final Chasse-neige brought the concert to a powerful, if desolate, close.

The first half of the concert had contained a surprisingly robust, characterfully shaped, performance of Bach’s two-part Clavier-Übung, and an edgy performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Sonata, perhaps the least Brahmsian piece he wrote. This was a much wilder interpretation than Emmanuel Ax’s fluent but domesticated performance a couple of years ago, with a final movement that verged on the burlesque, making the stories that Brahms earned money as a teenager playing the piano in dance halls and brothels seem eminently plausible. As we know, he then grew a beard and became respectable. Gerstein has also grown a beard, making him seem a little less mischievous than the last time I saw him. Now, dressed in black suit and shirt, there is a hint of the Mephistophelean about him, perhaps appropriate for the supernatural demands of the Liszt that dominated this concert.




Daniil Trifonov


Daniil Trifonov

One of the regulars at Chicago’s piano recitals walked out abruptly at the end of the first half of Daniil Trifonov’s performance this afternoon and didn’t return for the second half. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was reacting to one of the most dreadful performances of Schumann I have sat through, by turns funereal and clangorous, but that would have been a shame because the concert ended with the most joyous extravagantly virtuosic performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka that I have ever heard. Piano recitals are often a tale of two halves, but there has seldom been such a strong contrast as I experienced today.

The Schumann was a surprise. Trifonov is undoubtedly a genius, the only pianist to win both the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions in the same year. A year ago, still only 25, he won the Gramophone Artist of the Year award. I recently watched an intensely communicative performance of the Chopin Preludes online, reviving my love of music that I sometimes found stale from over-familiarity. If he is able to respond to Chopin’s more overt poetry, he seemed unable to enter into Schumann’s more intimate expressive world. In the first half, he sat stiffly upright, playing with a deadpan expression, his arms stretched out as if to keep his emotional distance from the piano keys. The famous Traümerei from his Kinderszenen were played with a blank solemnity and if the child had not already fallen asleep in the penultimate piece, Kind im Einschlummern, he would not have lasted long listening to the lugubrious poet that followed. Several in the audience enjoyed their own slumbers.

The Toccata was at least fast and loud, but also over-pedalled, dashing my hopes that Trifonov would match Sviatoslav Richter’s miraculously lithe and transparent recording. A few years ago, Jonathan Biss played the second movement of Schumann’s Kreisleriana with a lyricism that was both ardent and tender, but here it was just slow and shapeless, and the final spectral gallop was more of a muted trot. I was seriously concerned that Trifonov, now bearded and wearing tails, was becoming a jaded professional, bored by what he was playing.

The real Trifonov finally showed up in the second half. He played a sequence of five of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, with the rather solemn fourth followed by an exquisitely shaded performance of the seventh and a scintillating account of the second. He finished with the 24th, perhaps an overly portentous choice for such a brief selection, but played with impressive cumulative power.

By the end, he looked as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself. He bounded onto the stage to start Petrushka, launching into the opening bars with a broad smile almost before he was seated. Whereas he had been an impassive observer of the music in the first half, now he was fully engaged, hunched over the keyboard or even jumping off the stool, while his hands flew over the notes. It was not the most immaculate performance I have heard – he missed a few right-hand leaps and once even failed to touch the keyboard during a glissando – but it was thoroughly exhilarating to see playing of such visceral excitement. It reminded me of a live recording of Gilels in the early sixties, normally such a restrained perfectionist, playing the same music with carefree abandon. Here was a young artist sharing his prodigious gifts with an infectious joy, producing a richly deserved standing ovation that even I joined in.

There were plenty of examples of Trifonov’s imagination in all three movements, but particularly in the drama of the central movement, full of the most telling details. When I last heard him live, he played some of Ravel’s Miroirs with a storyteller’s gift, giving a cinematic sweep to what are normally static images, and he did the same here. When I compared him to Benjamin Grosvenor, I wrote of their shared gift in rethinking and thereby refreshing our own appreciation of even the most familiar music. I still believe that, and hope that the Schumann was an aberration he is unlikely to repeat, rather than an inevitable consequence of growing a beard.

Benjamin Grosvenor


Benjamin Grosvenor

After his recent piano recital in Chicago, Benjamin Grosvenor was asked what advice he would give to young pianists. Since he is only 24, he seemed a little bemused even though his first concert was nearly 14 years ago. Nevertheless, if you didn’t know his age, you could be forgiven for assuming he has been around much longer, because he is perhaps the most complete pianist I have heard live in a long time. Along with his near contemporary, Daniil Trifonov, he seems to herald a new generation of artists who combine absolute technical mastery with a quest to rethink every note, eliminate every stylistic cliché, and uncover the expressive heart of every piece. Time and again, when I have heard him online, he has revealed new facets, sometimes startlingly original, in even the most familiar music, without the novelty ever seeming like self-indulgence. I didn’t always agree with his interpretations, but they were always fresh and imaginative.

The clearest example of this gift in his Chicago recital was the famous opening movement of the Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Normally, this is played to invoke a sense of wrapt stillness, through intense concentration and an even touch. Murray Perahia was an exemplary exponent of this approach a few years ago, Kissin less so. Grosvenor instead painted a canvas with subtly variegated colors that were worthy of Turner, conveying a vivid nocturnal scene with skillful chiaroscuro. The ebb and flow of the dynamics were perfectly judged, making the interpretation seem, while we were listening, to be inevitable, banishing any alternatives. Whether the popular title is authentic to Beethoven’s original conception or not, it has never seemed so apposite.

Grosvenor selects extremely varied programs, giving him an opportunity to inhabit a wide range of styles. He began with an affectionate rendition of Schumann’s Arabesque, and continued with a sprightly Mozart sonata. However, I suspect that he feels more at home with the more romantic repertoire. The second half started with a ravishing account of Scriabin’s early Sonata No. 2, op. 19, the opening movement being warmly phrased and colored, with the right hand tracing tender filigree roulades. The presto last movement can call to mind Emperor Joseph’s famous complaint about “too many notes,” but here the right-hand torrent was propelled inexorably by driving left-hand octaves, both combining to create a compelling dramatic narrative.

He ended his recital in Spain, with rhythmically alert performances of two of Granados’ Goyescas forming a bridge to Liszt’s formidable Rhapsodie Espagnole, surely one of his most challenging works to bring off. While his performance didn’t entirely eclipse memories of Stephen Hough’s remarkable recording, or even Arnaldo Cohen’s Symphony Center recital a few years ago, Grosvenor was in full command of the notes, whether in the flamboyant rhetoric of the La Folia variations or the snapping rhythms of the Jota Aragonesa. He gave two encores, one by Moskowski and one by Nikolai Kapustin, faux jazz that I once described as sounding like a cocktail bar pianist on steroids.

I was excited to discover that Benjamin Grosvenor was appearing in Chicago, and he didn’t disappoint. He is quite famous in the UK as the youngest ever winner of the BBC Young Musician’s piano category, with a performance of the Ravel’s G-Major Concerto that was remarkably mature for an 11-year old (and can still be seen on YouTube). He obviously enjoys crowd-pleasing music; he claims to have been the youngest member of the Billy Mayerl Society by about 60 years. I am guessing that he has left Marigold and Wisteria far behind him, but he doesn’t seem to be interested in delving into the more ascetic repertoire yet. I am not expecting him to return to play the Goldberg Variations any time soon. That’s fine – there are plenty of other pieces that are well suited to his keenly intuitive musicality. And he’s still only 24.


Rudolph Buchbinder


Rudolph Buchbinder

Somehow, Rudolph Buchbinder has stayed below my radar all these years, even though he is celebrating his 70th birthday this December. He is probably better known in mainland Europe; I presume he wasn’t a regular on the South Bank when I attended concerts in London and I can’t recall seeing a Chicago recital before. However, he moves in elite company, regularly performing for the Vienna Philharmonic and other major orchestras, usually with prestigious conductors. The one time I do recall seeing him was on a PBS special, when he was performing at an outdoor concert in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace, an implausibly picturesque setting that looks like a specially constructed set for an André Rieu concert. He gave an efficient performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto, followed by a flamboyant piano transcription of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. This is evidently a favorite party piece of his, because he gave the same encore at this afternoon’s Symphony Center concert, forming a slightly incongruous if entertaining end to a rather serious afternoon.

I’m afraid I found much of the afternoon disappointing. He started with a fairly bland performance of one of Bach’s English Suites, fluent and generously pedaled but lacking in variety of color or imagination. Things didn’t improve with Schubert’s first set of Impromptus. These are tricky pieces to bring off because the piano textures are rather spare, particularly in the first movement, where the insistent repetition of the opening melody can become wearing unless played with the infinite subtlety that Paul Lewis displayed a couple of years ago. Buchbinder’s performance seemed rushed and clangorous, with the occasional unidiomatic rubato substituting for expressivity. The remaining movements were better, but still left me longing for the affection of a Lewis or Curzon. The audience erupted into applause at the end, making me feel more than usual like a jaded curmudgeon, so I decided to see if a glass of red wine would make me enjoy the rest of the concert more.

The second half of Beethoven sonatas was indeed better. Buchbinder is a Beethoven specialist, and he seemed more at home in music that depends more on harmonic drive than melodic color. In  the opening movement of the Sonata op. 14 no. 2, he played the opening theme with attractive fluidity and the second subject with Italianate charm. Nevertheless, having presumably played this for more than fifty years, he seems to have forgotten to care about the details. The first movement has several passages that build in intensity before a sudden piano or pianissimo marking, but these dynamic shifts, which can catch your breath in the best performances, scarcely registered in Buchbinder’s. The second movement was surely too fast for an Andante, unless he always walks like a Manhattan commuter. However, I loved the speed of his performance of the last movement, which I think is often played too slow to catch its impish humor.

The best performance by far was the Appassionata, which was played with genuine pace and drama, while always maintaining complete textual clarity, not easy at the speeds he chose. The slow variations could have been played with more dignity – he does seem to rush slow movements – but the final pages of the finale were exhilarating, particularly the coda, where Beethoven (and Buchbinder) threw caution to the wind in a thrilling  climax of wild abandon. I had no problem sharing the audience’s enthusiasm this time, and I don’t think it was the wine.

Before the Strauss transcription, Buchbinder played the Gigue from Bach’s first Partita as an encore, with a gossamer lightness and wit, far removed from the pedestrian Bach with which he opened the concert. When he displays such evident imagination and virtuosity, it makes me long to have heard him in his younger days, to see whether he showed a greater sense of wonder and affection for musical details that he now has a tendency to skate over. We are in a golden age of young pianists, with artists like Igor Levit and Jonathan Biss providing fresh insights into familiar scores such as these sonatas. Is it because they haven’t played this music so many times before? Since I will never be able to play the Appassionata the way Buchbinder can, even after decades of practice, I will probably never know.