The young American pianist James
Giles, a professor at Northwestern University,
gave one of the most sheerly inspired piano recitals I can remember
hearing for sometime. Inspired partly for the programming, which placed
the familiar with the unfamiliar, and inspired partly by self-evident
artistry, it was the kind of recital which put the music at the service
of the composer and not the performer.
For some, Mr Giles’ performance
of Schubert’s great D960 sonata might have compared less favourably
with a recent one given at the Festival Hall by Evgeny
Kissin. Yet, Kissin’s egomanic, somnambulant
performance, taken at a dangerously slow tempo, was a world away from
the tempestuous, almost fiery approach which Mr Giles took. Where Mr
Kissin had been obtrusive in his use of rubato, Mr Giles used it to
the minimum and the effect was to distil a parenthesis of death-hued
ambivalence to the noble opening movement. Subtle shadings of pp
and ppp playing, so poorly differentiated in Mr Kissin’s performance,
were here radically drawn so when the appearance of the G-flat trill
in the bass part of the piano awoke, like a slumbering giant, it did
so with thunderous, almost calamitous, force.
What Mr Kissin mistook for languor
in the second movement, Mr Giles took for poetry – and how beautifully
he controlled the sound, sometimes over-projected by pianists, of Schubert’s
col pedale marking. If time literally did appear to stand still
in Mr Kissin’s traversal of this movement, Mr Giles evoked stillness
in so far as a shadow creeps forward beneath failing sunlight. He brought
a mercurial lightness of touch to the Scherzo, and the Allegro
had requisite high-spiritedness. Perhaps sometimes Mr Giles’ keyboard
colouring could be a little more ravishing than it was but this was
a performance of the D960 which stands comparison with that of
one of the finest of today’s young Schubertians, Paul Lewis.
As Liszt had closed Evgeny Kissin’s
recital, so it opened James Giles’. On the Death of Laszlo Telecky
proved to be the darkest of openings – its implacable four-note ground
bass resonating with almost ground-shaking force. The Hungarian Rhapsody
No.17 was delivered with fearless panache amid coruscating blackness
of tone. It is not difficult to see that two of his teachers were Byron
Janis and Lazar Berman, two exceptionally fine Liszt players.
The second half of James Giles’
programme constituted a series of world premières, although they
were really European premières since most had already been performed
in the United States in February. Augusta Read Thomas’ Two New Etudes
pay homage to Messiaen and Boulez, although in reality they resemble
neither composer. ‘Cathedral Waterfall’ lacks the colour that Messiaen’s
music drips with and ‘On Twilight’ doesn’t have that Boulezian splinter
of sound that resembles the feeling of walking over shards of broken
glass. Intermittently they offer glimpses of a composer on the brink
of finding her voice, but ultimately they fall short of inventiveness.
Stephen Hough, better known as a
pianist, composed his Suite R-B for Richard Goula (the Ritchie-Bitchie
of the title) and these expressive, but overtly tonal vignettes, offer
a transparency of diction largely missing from Read Thomas’ Etudes.
Mr Giles played them with delicacy, especially ‘The Iris Garden’ (dedicated
to him), but could never quite save these pieces from being unmemorable.
In a somewhat different league is Earl Wild’s arrangement of Jarabe
Tapatio "Mexican Hat Dance", in part an outrageous spoof,
in part a throwback to the grand manner of Nineteenth Century transcriptions
for the piano. Mr Giles played it effortlessly, spinning an exhilarating
stream of invective and virtuosity – much in the same way as the great
pianist himself might have done.
There is no question, however, that
Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata No.3 op.82 is of a very different
magnitude to the other new works played in this recital. Its scale is
breathtaking, its drama evocative and its lasting place in the repertoire
imperishable. Liebermann’s largest solo piano work to date, and his
first piano sonata for 20 years, it has all the typical elements of
lyrical brilliance and formidable virtuosity which were hallmarks of
his two, incandescent piano concertos (recorded by Stephen Hough for
Although written in a single movement
it is clearly, in form, a sonata with its fast-slow-fast contours immediately
evident. The first part of the Sonata has a Stygian darkness
which recalls Prokofiev and Bartok – not least in the velocity of octaves
the pianist is forced to negotiate – but it is much more than being
merely derivative. Fundamental to the work is an ambiguity of texture
and a cerebral pointedness which is uniquely Liebermann’s.
Most striking is the sublime middle
section, more improvisatory than the fiery outer sections, with music
that is alternately lyrical and barbarous. The Jacobean blackness of
some of the phrasing, so meticulously uncovered in this wonderful performance
of it, is reminiscent of some of Shostakovich’s most desolate writing,
but so too is the sparse, spatial writing (recalling that composer’s
late string quartets). At times, Liebermann abruptly truncates the lyricism
and instead we get malevolent atonal passages of almost unbearable tension.
This is no better illustrated than in the middle part of this section
with its low bass chords and high ringing, right-hand notes hit with
penetrating (and piercing) force. It reminded me in no small way of
twin towers rising inexorably only for them to collapse under the weight
of the victorious bass line chords. The third section returns us to
the Bartokian drama and to the work’s incendiary conclusion.
It is a magnificent work, and it
would be difficult to imagine a more dedicated and barnstorming performance
than the one James Giles gave us. It easily rates as the most formidable
achievement by a pianist I have heard for some time.
I ended my review of Evgeny Kissin’s
March recital by writing, "much
of this programme was conceived on high intellectual values but it was
the intellect behind it that was largely missing."
James Giles’ programme proved to be anything but that with a riveting
intelligence given to everything he played. It was the kind of recital
you never really forget.