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S & H Recital Review

Schubert, Chopin Maria João Pires (piano), Wigmore Hall, 1pm, Monday, November 10th 2003 (CC)


Pires is an artist (and thatís the only word) of great magnetism. Not that one would guess it from her entrance. She is a tiny, modest figure whose true stature only reveals itself the moment she touches a pianoís keys. These days, Piresí recitals are cherished events Ė the place was stuffed, and the queue for returns massive.

The programme required an interpreter of the utmost maturity. Late Schubert and three of Chopinís biggest interpretative challenges are not for the faint of heart. It is in just this repertoire that Pires excels, however, and the audience was treated to playing of the utmost integrity and vision.

Schubertís Klavierstücke, D946 date from 1828, the composerís final year. Pires played the first two (E flat minor and E flat) with the greatest perception. She opened with a surprisingly stormy E flat minor, wherein fortes were imbued with burnished tone and voicing was a dream. The contrasting section was marvellously still (now this is how to reduce a capacity audience to absolute silence!); the innocence of the final episode projected as only experience can. This experience showed itself again at the very opening of the E flat, a simple pastorale. Pires made us aware of the contained profundity, later projecting late-Schubertian disquiet quite remarkably.

Piresí Chopin has long been held in the highest critical esteem. Choosing three elusive pieces was a calculated gamble that paid off in spades. The F minor Fantaisie, Op. 49 (1841) began as pure desolation, the bare octaves carrying massive meaning. Here one of Piresí hallmarks emerged Ė it is the way she can turn a phrase, quite unexpectedly, leading to a moment of pure revelation that makes her playing so very special. This glimpse into Chopinís darker musings was accompanied by remarkable passion.

The Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 66 (1835) was much more of an interlude between the Fantaisie and the Polonaise-Fantaisie. Using little pedal, Pires played with remarkable clarity and facility. She projected the tender, quasi-operatic melodies to perfection. This account was predominantly about tenderness.

Deciding not to wait for a passing emergency-services siren to disappear, Pires launched into the elusive Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat, Op. 61 (1845-6). Her grasp of this pieceís design was complete (it can so easily feel undirected in the wrong hands), as was her feeling for the workís unique handling of tonality (one section almost seemed to point towards mid-period Scriabin!). Intelligent, persuasive and powerful, this was an interpretation to linger long in the memory of a piece that defeats so many. Pires did not disappoint.

Colin Clarke



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