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S & H Recital Review

Beethoven, Chopin Malcolm Binns (piano). Wigmore Hall, Sunday September 14th, 2003 (CC).

Musically, this was a demanding programme. The first part coupled two demanding Beethoven Sonatas – the E flat, Op. 7 and the A flat, Op. 110. Both pose a severe interpretative as well as technical challenge to the soloist. For the second part, Binns had chosen two Chopin Scherzos (the C sharp minor, Op. 39 and the E major, Op. 54), two Nocturnes and that Chopin challenge par excellence, the Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61.

Playing to a hall that was half full at best, Binns presented in the main accurate, but ultimately dull interpretations of some of the best-loved pieces in the piano’s repertoire. The E flat Sonata Op. 7 is from Beethoven’s first period and exhibits all of the effervescence of youth. Alas, it was difficult to credit in Binns’ hands. The Allegro was neither ‘molto’ nor ‘con brio’. It was insightful to hear a performance that was intent on highlighting the Haydnesque elements in the score, but despite Binns’ clarity of finger, the result was dull. Again, the Largo did not live up to its ‘con gran espressione’ instruction, despite an appropriately slow speed. If one could point to nice touches (the left hand staccato, for instance), in the final analysis Binns never penetrated beneath the surface. There was a lack of joie-de-vivre to the whole and, to add insult to injury, frequent rushing in the final movement.

Of course we enter a different world with the A flat Sonata, Op. 110 (1821-2). Initial impressions were positive, with good and even arpeggiations, although even here an over-literal approach to harmony robbed some passages of their magic. The prevailing pedestrian approach was most pronounced in the Allegro molto second movement. At least the final Fugue had some sense of serenity at times, and the bass some sort of organ-like grandeur. But late Beethoven really should not leave one cold.

It was with Chopin that Binns threatened to reveal himself as an acceptable interpreter, at least. But compare his Scherzo in C sharp minor (Op. 39) with Pollini at the Royal Festival Hall, and you are in a different league. Binns the virtuoso was on the threshold of making a welcome appearance, but never actually made it out: the coda hung on, but only just. If the Nocturne, Op. 62 No. 1 lacked interior simplicity, it was the E major Scherzo, Op. 54 that acted as a turning point of sorts for the Chopin part of the concert. Here the facility was good, with ‘laughing’ staccati making the ‘joke’ element more obvious than usual. Funnily enough, there was also a sense of intimacy which, paradoxically, was missing in both of the Nocturnes. Even here, though, the ending teetered on the brink.

Finally, the Polonaise-Fantaisie which at least gave some sense of completion to the evening. There was a good sense of searching, the Polonaise a ghost hovering in the background. Here, at last, was a sense of the greatness of the composition Binns was playing. But it was too late to rescue the evening.

Colin Clarke

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