RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Fantasia in D minor K397 [7.05]
Nine Variations in D on a Minuet by Duport K573 [14.38]
Sonata in E flat K282: Adagio [6.12]
Rondo in A minor K511 [11.02]
Rondo in D K485 [6.34]
Adagio in B minor K540 [11.16]
Sonata in D K311: Allegro con Spirito [4-28]
Andantino con espressione [5-05]
Rondo Allegro [6.29].
Michail Lifits (piano)
rec. 22-26 November, 2011, Sala Rossa, Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy.
DECCA 476 4857 [79.00]
No lover of Mozart’s piano music will want to be without this extraordinary Decca debut CD of Michail Lifits. As with so many young Russian lions, you can take the technical virtuosity for granted. What stands out is the musical intelligence which informs this playing. You will be taken on a musical journey with which you thought you were familiar. Lifits delights in illuminating hidden treasure from what you thought you knew. It is only ever the greatest minds and fingers that can do that. Clifford Curzon and Clara Haskil are my own preferred Mozart pianists. Both of these have a touch of the ethereal in their Mozart delivery. Lifits has some of that too. He also has a touch of the devil. This makes for a kind of Blakean marriage of heaven and hell: mischief among the angels. How well this turns out to suit Mozart’s thinking.
He opens the D minor Fantasia with some shocking Schumannesque/Lisztian pedalling. What the hell is he up to? Bear with him. He knows exactly where he is going. It is a path which others have taken before him. What unfolds is a lyric opera without sets, costumes or libretto, but with such a cast of “characters” as to confirm that Mozart is always an opera composer even when he was writing for the piano. I fancy that the boy would say especially when he was writing for the piano. The wizardry of the Lifits independence of hands is breathtaking. Cheeky, even. It sounds like two or three pianists are operating at the same time. It turns out that the combination of cheek and brio is an admirable Mozart trait.
Classical variations are all too frequently music for idiots. Some of us still chortle at Gerard Hoffnung’s insightful sketch of the blissful geezer listening to Haydn’s Surprise Symphony variations while being politely beaten on the head with a mallet. Mozart’s Duport Variations are somewhat of the same order. As ever, Mozart was hard up for cash and wanted to ingratiate himself in the court of Freidrich Wilhelm II where Jean-Pierre Duport was His Majesty’s cello teacher. The ploy failed as ingratiation almost always does.
Idiocy has no place in the Lifits orbit. So how does he cope with this slight music? Surprisingly, he doesn’t take the path of elaboration but rather its opposite: exposing the music in all its transparent simple-mindedness. Every bit of counterpoint is crystalline clear, every phrase neatly turned. A risky approach. Like all Lifits risks it is premeditated … and it comes off. To be sure, there is some ingratiating of pianist towards listeners, some slight crescendos and diminuendos which I feel sure are not indicated in the score - which I haven’t seen. This ingratiation is delivered tongue-in-cheek. As already noted, of cheek, the lad has plenty.
All honest listeners to Mozart know how easily he can pass from the cor-blimey to the sublime. The A minor Rondo is firmly in the latter category. Accordingly it receives close to solemn treatment from this pianist. Schubert is the acknowledged master of pathos in music but here, Mozart is a close second. Lifits engages the ear with a veiled, haunting sound in the main theme, permitting himself some nicely-timed variants of tempo on the theme’s return. A studied hesitancy, underlining the piece’s pained beauty. When Mozart chooses to enter the world of feeling it is always with some depth. He has an ideal servant for plumbing that depth on this recording.
That contrasts sharply with the D major Rondo in all its sunny brightness. A piece for the fingers rather than the mind, this. The two keys are already a clue to performance style: is anything ever more sombre than A minor or brighter than D major? All he has to do is to sit back and allow his skilled, magic fingers to ripple through the brightness. That is exactly what Michail Lifits does.
The Adagio in B minor returns us to the sublime. Lifits has no fear of the depth of feeling. His Adagio is daringly slow. You need a touch of genius as well as courage to take the piece at this speed. The boy has both. He wallows in the challenge. So do we, his listeners.
Both the sonatas on this disc belong to Mozart’s earlier period, so it is charm rather than depth of feeling which is to the fore. Charm is not particularly a Lifits leading quality; there is a tendency for it to come out tinged with irony - the delightful mischief rising to the surface again! I realize that when I begin to make concessions to Michail Lifits I am merely publicising my own inadequacies in musical understanding. Lifits doesn’t have many of those. I should just be content to bow to a superior musical mind.
No lover of Mozart’s piano music will want to be without this extraordinary Decca debut CD of Michail Lifits.