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S & H Recital Review

Lowell Liebermann Première (+ Liszt, Schubert, Read Thomas, Hough, Wild), James Giles (piano), Wigmore Hall, 16th April 2003 (MB)


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 Hyperion).

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.

Marc Bridle









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