Much to my surprise, this years Wigmore Hall recital by the young German, but London based, pianist Florian Uhlig was not that well attended. In his home country he is already a household name and remembering his last Wigmore recital I anticipated a full house. But the attitude of concert audiences in London is somewhat unpredictable.
Of course, one reason could have been that his usually exceptional programming had for once been questionable. Two Fantasias by minor British composers stood in sharp contrast to two major works of the German repertoire. Maybe he wanted to honour the two London institutions where he completed his studies with the highest honours: Scott Alexander Campbell Mackenzie had been president of the Royal Academy of Music from 1888-1924, while Bernard Stevens taught at the Royal College of Music until his resignation in 1981. With the Brahms and the Beethoven one is certainly right to quote Goethe´s Faust: "I hear your message, but I lack the trust."
The first work in a mixed recital has to lift the audiences spirit, an unwritten law even for the greatest pianists of our time: Ivan Moravec, for example, began his last London recital by playing Haydn. The Fantasia op.70 by Mackenzie (1847-1935), well know for his authoritarian and conservative approach towards his students, was neither uplifting nor of real importance and interest. Uhlig tried hard, too hard, to give the work some substance. Even the Steinway did not quite agree with so much fortissimo and pedalling – the instrument sounded crusted and even rattled from time to time. It is of enormous importance for any pianist to adjust to the acoustics, which in the Wigmore Hall varies greatly depending on the size of the audience. Florian Uhlig did not seem to be aware of the acoustical difficulties.
Even the Sonata Nr.1 in C major op.1 by Johannes Brahms, which followed, suffered from dangerous overexposure. This monumental sonata in four movements was in no way a real op.1. Brahms had already composed his Scherzo in E flat minor op.4, when he was 18, and, a year later, his sonata in F sharp minor. In 1853, the sonatas in C major and in F minor followed, when Brahms was only 20. Of course, the piano was his instrument throughout his life, but he never composed another sonata - concentrating instead on many sets of variations, on ballades, waltzes, fantasias and endless short pieces. Uhlig knew how to handle all the difficult aspects of this work brilliantly, but due to the over acoustical environment of the hall his interpretation lacked a distinctive clarity.
After the interval, Uhlig duly adapted his playing to the hall’s acoustics. Despite another unnecessary work, the light-hearted and Bach orientated Fantasia on "Giles Farnaby´s Dreame" op22 by Bernard Stevens (1916-1983), what followed was an unforgettable interpretation of Beethoven´s last sonata, showing this stylistically, as well as technically profound, musician back at his elemental best. Beethoven´s Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111 belongs amongst the deepest and most magical works ever written for the piano. Those two movements, known in Latin countries as "Il Testamento", are indeed his last will. Contrary to most pianists, who approach the contrasts in these movements with extreme dynamics, Uhlig played the two souls of the Faustian Beethoven, "Two souls, alas, live in me", - the rock-like Allegro con brio and the Appassionato, which brings consolation - in a more classical, more gentle manner than many, but at the same time never leaving us in any doubt as to the enormous struggle behind this music.
To have the breadth never to loose the overall perspective in the Arietta and its five variations, the ultimate transformation from this world into new spheres, "to hear that which the ear can not perceive", is not only a matter of concentration but also a matter of being able to identify oneself with the musical material. When Florian Uhlig finally reached the end of this never-ending movement, I felt myself being transformed into another world. The purity and inner harmony of his sound is something very, very special.
Two encores made one wish the concert would never finish: Beethoven´s 7 Variations on `God Save the King´ WoO 78, like the organ version on the same theme by Charles Ives, was full of humour and virtuosity, but sounded even more grotesque, when to everybody’s surprise, right in the middle, Uhlig managed quickly to switch in and out of the 5 Variations on `Rule Britannia´, WoO 79. Finally he played the sparkling Rondo a cappricioso G major op.129,("Die Wut über den verlorenen Groschen").