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Schubert and Liszt: Michail Lifits (piano), Istituzione Universitaria dei Concerti, Aula Magna del Università degli Studi, La Sapienza, Rome, 8.2.2011 (JB)

Liszt’s relationship with the piano was such that he required his performers to become part of their instrument, a kind of transmutation, which aimed at the materially impossible ideal of the pianist’s mind inhabiting the actual keys. Materially impossible but musically achievable. On today’s scene, there is almost certainly no pianist who comes so close to this ideal as the young Russian Michail Lifits. Yes, he is master and commander of his instrument; so much so, that you get the feeling that the instrument would not dare to give him other than the sounds he wants. Yet for all his steely determination (and there is lots of that) you clearly hear the love affair he is having in his contact with the keys – his astonishing capacity to coax sounds out the piano which you won’t hear from any other pianist. Piano playing doesn’t come greater than this. Interestingly, there were a couple of miscalculations, where the piano seemed to be talking back: If you treat me like this, just listen to how nasty I can sound. And he even seemed to have got that message too!

Schubert can be woefully unpianistic. Liszt, never. Lifits dived into the depths of Schubert’s soul and Liszt’s pianistic inventiveness in the latter’s transcriptions of four songs. He gave the audience the feeling that he was weaving these sounds before your ears. And do you know any other young pianist who can do that? Der Müller und der Bach sang with a cantabile rarely heard from this percussion instrument. Then, daringly, he introduced delightfully subtle nuances of cantabile. Gretchen am Spinnrade had all the menacing fatalism of Schubert’s setting. (Here is a pianist who has absorbed the poem as well as its setting.) Ständchen was another opportunity to quarry the beauty of sound which the piano can give under knowing fingers. Auf dem Wasser zu singen brought out a whole spectrum of tone colour, which is normally only experienced with a full orchestra.

Liszt’s transcendental study no. 9 was Lifits’s penultimate piece on this programme. It had opened the programme of Evgene Kisssin, just days before at Santa Cecilia. As I mentioned of the Kissin concert, his playing sounded like a warming-up exercise on that occasion. Lifits brought unique sounds out of the piano in this piece, much closer to what I believe was the composer’s aim. His magnificent coaxing technique was to the fore. The piano is unequivocally a percussion instrument: hammers hit strings. That is its mechanism. But by using what is called cushioning, a pianist can give the illusion that he is playing a string instrument. This is brought about by a highly skilled approach from the finger at the point where the hammer makes contact with the string, as well as release from that contact: the pianist has to conceive of what are three processes as one: the approach towards the string, the contact with the string and the release from the string. And all of that controlled from the pianist’s fingers. Lifits is one of the great masters of this technique. His piano sings like a cello or roars like a trombone as he subtly varies what is commonly called “touch”. This is Liszt’s particular challenge. And never was it so well met. You will see in all this that we are right back to the mind within the finger, the premise with which I began.

When the Abbé Liszt was confirmed in his order, he was ordained as an exorcist. This delighted the old gentleman. Mephistopheles, after all, was one of his favourite characters, and the idea of routing him out had immense appeal. Michail Lifits positively performed an exorcism with the piano as he took us through the daring, mischievous romp of the Mephisto Waltz no 1. This was on par with John Ogdon’s unsurpassed recording of this theatrical, pianistic adventure. Ogdon had some of his own demons to cast out; an exorcism in which he was not entirely successful and which eventually killed him.

The first part of the programme was given over to Schubert’s G major sonata, Op78, D894 (some thirty five minutes of music). I have long maintained that anyone under the age of sixty should not play this work; communicating Schubert’s mysterious tranquillity to an audience is beyond the experience of a young player. For all his insights and excellence, and even with all his musical communication skills, Michail Lifits – who is a little less than half the age of sixty- falls short. Come back with this piece in another thirty years time, dear Michail. I shall be waiting in the queue to hear you.

Clifford Curzon used to urge his pupils to check that they never made a mechanical sound on the piano. Michail Lifits follows this guidance extremely well. But this is only the start of Schubert’s needs. He then carries us into what might be called the haunted end of the day. Michail says he believes this piece makes enormous demands on the audience. He is right. Schubert, rather studiedly, is unclear in parts as to where he is going to lead us. In mediocre performances, the music can seem to meander without a sense of direction: a kind of musical agnosticism. I hasten to add that there was no mediocrity here. The interplay between B minor and B major in the minuet (third movement) was exquisitely realized. But this is where life gets marginally easier for the pianist: Schubert dares to let a little light into this movement.

All of Schubert is shot through with a feeling of pathos, even his sunniest moments. What distinguishes the G major sonata is its going into the depths of pathos – and in an unrelieved way in the first two movements. Michail said he was greatly impressed with the hushed, concentration powers of his Rome audience. That was a credit to his own remarkable playing, as anyone present would testify. So maybe you should just listen to the audience receptivity and stop listening to a cantankerous old critic, well over sixty.

Jack Buckley


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