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Schubert, Mozart, and Bach: David Fray (piano). Wigmore Hall, London. 8.5.2008 (MB)

Schubert – Impromptu in C minor, D 899 no.1
Schubert – Impromptu in G flat major, D 899 no.3
Mozart – Piano Sonata in B flat major, KV 333/315c
Mozart – Adagio in B minor, KV 540
Bach – Partita no.6 in E minor, BWV 830

The audience at this Wigmore Hall recital was disappointingly small, despite the recent release of David Fray’s widely-lauded first disc for Virgin Classics. Perhaps this is a case of a record company – and record collectors – being more discriminating than concert audiences, for Fray, on the evidence of this recital alone, is a very important pianist. He does not need to be treated as ‘promising’; he is a fully-fledged musician. This is not to say that everything was performed at an equal level, but where I am more critical, namely in the performance of the Mozart piano sonata, this is more a reflection on the very high quality of the rest of the performance than upon any serious failings.

Clichés concerning French musicians, not least pianists, die hard, but the only thing Gallic about Fray’s performance was his appearance. Indeed, if one closed one’s eyes during the two Schubert impromptus, one might have guessed at least ‘school of’ Wilhelm Kempff. In his programme notes, Jonathan Burton likened the C minor Impromptu to ‘taking the tune for a walk,’ which was just how it sounded here. Fray’s alertness to harmonic motion ensured that we were in safe hands with regard to the walk’s direction, whatever its diverting twists and turns. Voice-leading was excellent, though never in a self-consciously ‘individual’ way. The Erlkönig-triplets were ominous but never melodramatic; this was an impromptu, not an aspirant sonata movement. And the way in which the music died away – an especial strength of Fray’s performances throughout the recital – was truly magical, testament to his powers of touch and phrasing. The G flat major piece rightly stood closer to Mendelssohn than to Bellini; if vocal this were, then it was a song without words, not an aria. It was again a performance driven by a profound understanding of the work’s harmonic sense. Schenker – and indeed Furtwängler – would have approved. The darker undertones were well judged: neither too little nor too much. Again, the music subsided into nothingness, the only Gallic concession being the shrug at the end.

Mozart’s sonata in B flat, KV 333/315c was the only work concerning whose performance I had reservations. The opening Allegro was taken at quite a speed. Though not really hard-driven, I did think that it could profitably have been taken down a notch, and that Fray might have yielded a little more to Mozart’s lyricism. In this respect, the second subject was moulded to better effect during the exposition repeat and the recapitulation than it had been upon its initial presentation. The ineffably operatic vocal leaps first heard at the end of the exposition would have benefited from more tender shaping. Moreover, the dynamic range was somewhat restricted throughout: Fray proved himself excellent at differentiating between a wide range of piano playing, but never rose to a true forte. His varied articulation, however, was excellent. The Andante cantabile was certainly a modern reading in terms of its flowing tempo, but ultimately it sounded ever so slightly impatient. Admittedly, the exposition sounded more relaxed the second time round, so this was not simply a matter for the metronome. The concerto finale, marked Allegretto grazioso, was not excessively fast, but again I felt that a slightly more measured pace would have been preferable, not least when we reached the coda, whose figuration, whilst perfectly delivered in technical terms, suggested that a slower basic tempo might have been beneficial. This movement sounded louder on the whole, sometimes to good effect, as in the ‘orchestral’ lead-up to the cadenza, although I missed the shades of piano evident during the first two movements. The cadenza certainly sounded as a cadenza should.

After the interval, Fray remained with Mozart, for the miraculous Adagio in B minor, KV 540. Here, from the word go, there were greater dynamic contrasts, indicating a greater willingness to employ more or less the full resources of the modern piano. Imitating the fortepiano merely reduces the music, and I fancy there was a little of this to the sonata performance. Having said that, there is the undeniable fact that to perform Mozart well is the most difficult of all musical tasks, so one should not be too harsh; I have heard far, far worse. At any rate, we were treated – in every sense – not only to a true forte, but even sparingly to a true fortissimo, albeit always at the service of the music. Great care was taken with the voicing of the semiquaver chords, enabling their rhythmic and harmonic momentum fully to register. And there was an undeniable sense of fatal progression, always leading to the desolation of the coda and the final consoling warmth of B major.

If the Mozart Adagio was excellent, then the Bach partita received a performance for which the word ‘great’ is not an exaggeration. There was no sense whatsoever here of fearing to use the modern instrument to the full; it is interesting, though regrettable, that pianists nowadays often sound more circumscribed in Mozart than in Bach. Indeed, it was absolutely clear from this performance that, for those for whom Bach is more – so much more – than merely decorative, generically Baroque, the continuously developing life-force of his music will always demand the piano. As Ernst Bloch put it,
‘the harpsichord’s sharp, short sound fulfils not a single one of Bach’s requirements. … there can be no doubt that only our own pianos, the incomparable Steinways that were born for the modern Bach, clear, booming, edged with silver, have revealed how the master should now be played.’

The Toccata began with a splendid sense of freedom, both rhythmic and dynamic, to the opening flourishes. There was an excellent sense of the counterpoint developing therefrom, rather than providing a mere contrast. Every note counted, both in itself and for where it was going. Here, the tempi sounded ‘right’ without fail; there was no sense whatsoever of being hurried. Finely modulated dynamic contrasts added to the great cumulative build up to the reprise of the earlier, freer music. This return sounded duly inevitable, yet the sense of transformation was truly magical. The Allemande brought a good sense of Bachian ambiguity between the melodic and the chordal in its arpeggio figuration. Intricacy, expressive rather than decorative, was the key to the almost Wagnerian sense of ‘unending melody’. The Corrente was nicely contrasted, sounding a more boisterous mood from the outset. There was a real sense of the corrente dance truly running, though running meaningfully, for there was real depth to the projection of the music’s chromatic twists. In the Air, an especial joy was the subtle contrasting of the presentation of the theme, allied once again to a supreme sense of line and unendliche Melodie. The beauty of the Sarabande’s broken chords showed what only the piano could do, yet these were not merely ‘colourful’. Indeed, there was a presentiment of Boulezian proliferation – Fray’s disc for Virgin combined Bach and Boulez – as the dialectic between harmony and melody worked itself out. Likewise, the ornaments were truly melodic, which had not always been the case in the Mozart sonata. There could be no doubt that this movement formed the still heart to the partita. Fray boldly projected the Gigue’s counterpoint. From the opening bar, it was sharply defined rhythmically, and showed how one can have drive without ever tending towards the hard-driven. Bach’s extreme chromaticism brings us close to Berg, an aspect Fray clearly relished. Moreover, the expressive potential of the intervallic relationships, especially in the wedge-like opening out of the themes, was frankly Webernian, to an extent I cannot recall hearing previously. At the end, one appreciated that Fray had conceived the performance as a whole, and had triumphantly succeeded. It only remained for the poet to speak in the magical Schumann encore with which Fray concluded his distinguished recital.

Mark Berry

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