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Archive for December, 2011

David Fray

David Fray

David Fray

I first came across David Fray’s name when his first CD juxtaposing Bach and Boulez was released, creating quite a stir amongst classical music reviewers. He received the BBC Music Magazine “Newcomer of the Year” award in 2008 for his “vibrant imagination” and “impeccable technique.” Since then, reviews seem to have been more mixed, so I thought I should do some preparatory research before his Chicago recital last Sunday by watching him on YouTube. This was probably a mistake. In the first video I saw, he was sitting rather lazily in a chair picking, and occasionally poking, his way through the third of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux, looking vaguely troubled by something undefined. I wasn’t sure this was the appropriate response to such music. I still vividly remember Clifford Curzon playing this as an encore over thirty years ago, his face beaming with mischievous delight at the final modulation to the major. He was still captivated by this music in his seventies, whereas Fray just looked perplexed. I’m sure this is unfair, because the video was interspersed with shots of him dreamily wandering through woods as if in an after-shave commercial, so his detached attitude probably reflected the direction of a marketing consultant rather than his own artistic temperament. And his playing was quite mesmerizing nonetheless.

Although he seems to be a publicist’s dream, combining prodigious talent with the languid good looks, flopping hair and quivering lips of a young David Bowie, he seems to be an intensely private musician. He crossed the stage with anxious haste, clutching to his chest a towel that he flung on to the soundboard of piano before plunging without pause into the music, as if exchanging one security blanket for another. In his final entrance, he was already half-way through the throbbing opening chords of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata before the audience applause had a chance to subside. Once playing, he hunched over the keyboard, absorbed in his own world, sometimes playing with almost inaudible pianissimos. A couple of time, when members of the audience coughed between movements, he turned suddenly as if startled that anyone else was in the room. We were almost an irrelevance.

His playing is remarkably transparent in texture but without the dryness of some of his Gallic colleagues. He started with Mozart’s D-major piano sonata, D311, played with precision and deliberate poise, the trills crisply articulated, the phrasing fluid, the speeds restrained. A rather subdued first half concluded with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sonata, op. 28. Not much happens in this sonata, at least in the sense of drive or narrative flow. At the start, the music emerges from nowhere with gently repeating bass-notes, giving the impression that we are eavesdropping on the middle of a conversation or joining a journey already underway. There are occasional rhetorical flourishes, but it soon subsides back to the same relaxed pulse. This is real life rather than theatrical drama, although the way that the slow movement suddenly takes flight half-way through was made more powerful by Fray’s general restraint elsewhere.

In principle, the second half contained more action, starting with Mozart’s Fantasy in C-minor, K475. The opening bare octaves set an ominous tone for a piece that is always unsettled and sometimes on the edge of desperation. Rather than relieve the tension, the gentler passages seem anxiously questioning. Nevertheless, Fray was clearly, and perhaps overly, determined to avoid exaggerating the melodrama. The Waldstein was dispatched with virtuosity, not as clinical as Leif Ove Andsnes last year but just as fast, with a surprising accelerando in the final page of the first movement. I complained of Andsnes’ lack of pedaling in the final movement, but Fray somehow managed to make the melody float ethereally over the gentlest of accompaniments without any harmonic blurring. He has a beautiful cantabile tone that he projects naturally and effortlessly by keeping all other extraneous details submerged in the background, and I have seldom heard this music played as well, combining both clarity and atmosphere in equal measure.

I started the recital wondering whether Fray was poseur or artiste, or perhaps both at the same time. In fact, it turns out that he is not nearly as eccentric as Olli Mustonen or Ivo Pogorelich, whose individuality can be refreshing but often borders on narcissism. There are the occasional spiky staccatos or clipped phrases that are stylistically out of the mainstream, but they seem to be genuine responses to the music, not gratuitous posturing. If anything, he seems charmingly insecure in public, willing to play the publicity game and dress accordingly, but uncomfortable with it nonetheless. And the soft passages are played with such intense intimacy that it has to be a truly personal response to music that he genuinely loves. I’m pleased that he lets us listen in, even if he doesn’t always realize we are there.

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