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S & H Recital Review

Schumann, Debussy, Rachmaninov Jean-Philippe Collard (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, Thursday, January 22nd, 2004 (CC)


The International Piano Series boasts ‘World Class Soloists on the South Bank’ but on this evidence this is a questionable statement. ‘Good-to-Average Soloists on the South Bank’, maybe, with this recital being one of its great disappointments. No wonder Jean-Philippe Collard’s recordings of Schumann and Rachmaninov have been relegated to EMI’s super-budget Rouge et Noir label (CZS5 75281-2 and CZS5 69677-2, respectively). Both score highly on a notes-per-penny ratio: they would hardly shift otherwise, I imagine.

Collard’s Schumann is eminently respectable. His way with Papillons, Op. 2 was initially acceptable, the languid opening contrasting with the jerky, fluttering Prestissimo second movement. Later, left-hand detail could be dreamy but not indistinct and wondering harmonies did exactly that. Yet this remained an earthbound account, good but not inspired.

Kreisleriana confirmed impressions. Collard, who sits very still and lets his fingers do the talking, displayed his deftness at the works very opening. But with this wash of notes came a hint of the typewriter. Eusebius on this occasion was feeling rather buttoned-up, it would seem, certainly not as free as the spirit of the music seemed to warrant. Collard was a mostly reliable guide (he nearly lost his way at one point, though) and he was never less than musical. But as the first half progressed it emerged that he is never, ever inspired, not in Schumann at least. True, there was an air of mystery around the ‘Sehr langsam’ (Eusebius) sixth movement, and Collard proved on occasion that an intelligent lightening of tone can work wonders for maintaining interest. But time and time again one was impressed merely by surface and/or technical matters. Collard gave us sterling fingerwork, some good part-delineation – and a curiously empty feeling during the interval. Schumann is deeper than this, and deserves better.

A trio of stand-alone Debussy looked on paper to be the most interesting part of the concert from a repertoire angle. The Danse bohéhienne hails from 1880. The eighteen year-old composer was criticised by Tchaikovsky for not sufficiently developing his material, yet Collard presented it with evident warmth, enjoying the Chopin-influenced middle section. If he over-projected the main voices of the Rêverie (1890), it was still preferable to a vastly under-characterised L’isle joyeuse (1904). Here there was little fantasy apparent in the trills and their surrounding gestures. Outbursts failed to even approach anything resembling the ecstatic – only the sonic potentialities of the chords themselves acted as a reminder of what this piece should and can be.

A Rachmaninovophobe might have cynically guessed that Collard might be more successful on this turf. But there is a depth to Rachmaninov that is easily overlooked if one dwells merely on surface schmaltz. Collard was actually fairly middle-of-the-road in his approach here. The famous C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2 held some nicely shaded chording, but the G sharp minor, Op. 32 No. 12 lacked atmosphere. The opening was hardly evocative –snow on the streets of St Petersburg this was not! It was hard-pressed and shallow.

Two pairs from Op. 23 worked well as programmed entities. In the D minor, Op. 23 No. 3, Collard delivered some nice staccato (especially in the left hand) and the quasi-extempore D major Op. 23 No. 4 held within it some effective darker clouds. Interesting that in the E flat, Op. 23 No. 6 Collard seemed to be trying to refer back to the world of Debussy. The C minor, Op. 23 No. 7, rose to a fair climax.

I am sure Mr Collard played some encores (the punters liked it). But one can only take so much mediocrity in one go.

Colin Clarke





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