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Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev Peter Jablonski (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, Wednesday, March 19th, 2003 (CC)


The last time I heard Peter Jablonski, I was not impressed. He has earned himself a place as part of the prestigious ‘International Piano Series’, however, and therefore is set to be judged against the like of Mitsuoko Uchida's memorable recital of last week, which lingered fresh in the memory.

This recital was part of the ‘Prokofiev and Shostakovich under Stalin’ Festival, which gave it an, in my experience, unique angle: two full sets of programme notes for the same recital, by two different authors (one in the Festival brochure by David Nice, the other in the Piano Series Spring Season brochure by Nick Breckenfield). Luckily, they complemented each other. Plus, there was Jablonski’s own introduction in the Piano Series programme and, to round it all off, an excellent pre-concert talk by Gerard McBurney on Prokofiev the pianist. No pressure on Jablonski to deliver, then.

Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, Op. 37b of 1875/6 (actually a set of twelve pieces, one for each month) needs more frequent airing, and excerpting from them is a sensible way to do this. Whilst Jablonski was not as literal as Irakly Avaliani on Pavane (ADW7272), he began September’s ‘Hunting Song’ with a hardened tone. This may have been a bold and annunciatory beginning, but it was also over-pedalled and with a hard edge to it. October’s ‘Autumn Song’ is characterised by a longing melancholy (it would make a marvellous encore piece), giving the impression of a quasi-improvised, highly personal world: a pity Jablonski insisted on over-projecting inner voices for the sake of it. December (‘Christmas’), a Chopin Waltz seen through a Tchaikovskian filter, had a certain amount of warmth but was missing the other part of the equation – tenderness. Interesting that, whatever the technical demands of the rest of the music on the programme, it was these three unprepossessing miniatures which showed Jablonski’s weaknesses clearly. Thcaikovsky’s The Seasons requires an interpreter who is in no doubt of its worth: Jablonski is not this person.

He seemed happier in Rachmaninov’s eight Etudes-tableaux, Op. 33 (1911). David Nice’s assertion in the (Festival) programme that ‘these are Rachmaninov’s fugitive visions’ may seem like a strained link to the Prokofiev thread of the umbrella event, but it is certainly true that Rachmaninov is frequently at his best in short, concise statements. Jablonski was alive to the dreamy contrasts of the first piece (F minor), and seemed intent to see the second (C major) as a direct counterpart to the famous G sharp minor Prelude, Op. 32 No. 12. He also managed to avoid schmalz (no mean feat in some cases) and brought off the impassioned minor-mode Rachmaninov of No. 8 in C sharp minor with gusto.

The second half balanced the first directly by also starting off with Jablonski’s own selection of pieces from a collection, but this time it was from Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75 (1937). Jablonski opted for No. 2 (Scene: The Street Awakens); No. 7 (Friar Lawrence) and No. 8 (Mercutio). The spiky The Street Awakens was characterised by forced agogics, while Friar Lawrence needed to invoke more lumbering, gentle humour: only in Mercutio did Jablonski seem happier (presumably because it was an opportunity to show off his technique). Prokofiev’s Eighth Piano Sonata (1939-44) could hardly be of more different mettle. It was premièred by Gilels; Sviatoslav Richter also entered the world of its secrets. August company, and Jablonski’s name really cannot be mentioned in the same breath. It is a mammoth interpretative undertaking for any pianist. This Sonata definitely does not yield its secrets easily.

Jablonski occasionally seemed to want to link it to the Romeo and Juliet pieces rather than plumb its depths. The first movement, tiring for both performer and listener in terms of sheer stamina, is driven by its own remarkable logic, one which seemed to escape Jablonski who seemed happiest in the more convoluted passages (more notes to play?). Listeners should feel as if they are being guided, inexplicably but surely, through an enormous labyrinth: here the pianist was the one who was lost. The return of the opening had little or no sense of magic, and the end of the movement as a whole said it all: Jablonski just raised his hands away from the keyboard in the most perfunctory and superficial manner. Maybe he realised he had failed to mesmerise anybody.

The Andante sognando (dreamy) was bereft of its bitter-sweet quality because Jablonski was trying too hard to be expressive and ended up being simply too interventionist. For the final Vivace, Jablonski missed the dark, sombre undercurrent. There was some fudging in the most taxing passages, and what excitement there was towards the end was too little, too late.

I only stayed for the first encore, which seemed to sum the entire recital up to a tee: Debussy’s Feux d’artifice (‘Fireworks’, from Préludes, Book 2), as shallow and insubstantial an interpretation as one is likely ever to hear, flashy with no depth whatsoever. The Marseillaise quote, which should be shrouded in clouds of mystery, sank like a damp squib, weighed down by its own sense of inconsequence, functioning perfectly as a metaphor for much of this recital.

Colin Clarke


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