A great evening with Dmitri Alexeev on 13 November. Celebrations after unforgettable performances by one of the great pianists of our time. Brahms F minor Sonata and Schumann Fantasie played with the authority and weight that we have not heard since Arrau. Six encores for a packed audience overwhelmed by performances that are sadly lacking these days from our concert halls. Performances so often today where solid reliability has taken the place of the artist ready to risk everything on a journey of discovery with the audience. The melody of the first of two Bunte blatter encores was what Schumann claimed was sent to him by the angels. Later used by Brahms in his homage to Schumann as the master himself was to use it in his violin concerto that was discovered only by chance after his death.
After such emotionally overpowering performances of Brahms op 5 and Schumann op 17 what more subtle choice could there be from an artist where every note and rhythm had such a noble inevitability. In crucial emotional moments the right hand would help the left in creating even more sonority from the bass. Always rich Philadelphian sounds that Stokowski would draw from his orchestra and that so beguiled Rachmaninov that he wrote everything with their sound in mind. There was the weight of sound even in the most tender passages.
Where the Russian school, of which the master was Richter, has often shown us with their extreme attention to the sounds from pianissimo to mezzo piano sacrificing in lesser hands forte and fortissimo that can become ungratefully hard and abusive. It was Gilels in particular who showed how playing with weight could produce golden sounds throughout the range creating a complete orchestra. Allowing the architectural line to evolve naturally as with the great German conductors like Klemperer or Furtwangler where the brass were kept rigorously under control. Six encores just poured out of this great artist’s hands.
Two supremely characterised Albumblatter op 124 by Schumann following on from the two Bunte blatter op 99 and a fleetingly beguiling Mendelssohn song without words in F sharp minor op 67. A passionately savage Intermezzo from Carnaval jest of Vienna op 26 was followed by Chopin’s Mazurka in C sharp minor played with heartbreaking nostalgia but also rumbustous rhythmic stamping of feet as rarely we hear so authentically played.
Flowers, cheers and a hall on their feet with the adrenaline entering into all that were privileged to be present. Brahms F minor Sonata and Schumann Fantasie, words just fail me as I was so overcome by such powerful performances. Jowever for the pure pleasure of reliving such an experience I will try my best to describe some of the marvels that will remain ingrained for a long time to come.
Mention too must be made of his own truly magical transcriptions of three of Brahms’ Chorale Preludes played as a luxurious ‘hors d’oevre’ to the main course! The one op 122 n.8 played before the Schumann Fantasie even sounded from the same world of Schumann. An artist in conflict within himself with the delicate Eusebius contrasted with the rumbustuous Florestan, the conflict of all true artists that some might give a name to… ‘soul’.
Just what we were so unexpectedly treated to tonight! I had flown in especially from Rome where a few years ago Alexeev gave two recitals for us. Not having heard of him playing Brahms F minor or Schumann op 17 before I had a feeling that this was something not to miss. Indeed it was a very special evening and it was ‘a far far better thing that I have done than I have ever done before ‘ to quote Dickens. In the 60’s we used to wait anxiously in June for the annual visit of Artur Rubinstein who would show us just what it meant to be a legendary virtuoso …a true inspiration to all aspiring young pianists. Alexeev showed us and many of his students ,that he very generously divides his time with, just what they should be striving for too.
The third recital in a series of four that Alexeev wanted to dedicate to his mentor Dmitri Bashkirov.Under the title Beyond Boundaries over the last month St John’s Smith Square has been resounding with the sort of presence that Artur Rubinstein used to offer us annually during the month of June. From the very first notes of Alexeev’s own transcriptions of two of Brahms’ Chorale Preludes for Organ op.122 n.6 there was a luminosity of sound as this deeply felt religious prayer unfolded.Op 122 n.10 slipped in so unobtrusively with its deeply moving tenor melody allowed to sing with such subtle inflections surrounded by a golden halo of sumptuous sounds. This was the preparation for the monumental opening of the F minor Sonata!
There were glorious golden sounds created from the outset with Alexeev’s wonderful attention to the bass knowing that without this anchor there would be only immaculate details and no real sense of line. The fiendishly difficult jumps were just thrown off as he leapt up to them, with such vehemence,from deep in the bass. There was an overwhelming authority and a wonderful flexibility all coming from the sumptuous sounds that he had carved deep in the piano from the very first notes. The deliberate and rhythmic pointing was played with an orchestral fullness of tone where it seemed there was time for every detail. The meltingly beautiful ‘con espressione’ was played with subtle beauty only matched by the sublime heights he touched with the cello melody in the D flat episode. To watch his expression as he played the final alternating loud and then quiet chords was a lesson in itself. Like the menacing glances that Toscanini must have shot at his long suffering orchestral players!Reaching deep down with both hands for the final earth shattering chord the scene was set with an audience now very much on the edge of their seats.
‘Through evening’s shade, the pale moon gleams. While rapt in love’s ecstatic dreams Two hearts are fondly beating.’ Is the poem that Brahms prefaces his Andante espressivo that Alexeev played with such subtle luminous sounds of rare beauty. It was here that one could really feel the weight of a great artist as he conjured up magical sounds of pure velvet richness. The ‘poco più lento’ was indeed dolcissimo as it led so naturally to a build up of passionate longing,the ornaments never getting in the way but an integral part of the melodic line just adding more intensity. The coda also marked Andante molto espressivo just grew out of the opening melodic line but which is so often slowed down as a separate episode instead of returning to the original tempo. This gave a great sense of line to the passionate build up and it was the Adagio that became the true climax of this movement with the quite ravishing ‘con molto espressione’ falling phrases reaching truly sublime heights as the chords spread over the whole keyboard gradually dying to less than a mere whisper. Catapulting himself into the Scherzo with the animal like intensity of someone just waiting to pounce,I have never known the syncopated rhythms to be so poignant and crystal clear. There was some beautiful doubling with the thumb in the trio before returning to the hypnotic animal intensity of the Scherzo. Menace too in the Intermezzo with the rhythmic insistence of the bass notes reaching unbearable intensity gradually disintegrating to the three final heart beat chords played with absolute perfection of colour and shape demonstrating, yet again, his amazing tour de force of transcendental control. The Finale was played very deliberately and allowed the syncopated chords to really have great impact. There was warmth in the chorale melody, played so simply as it gradually grew in intensity. Brahms stopping seemingly to search for his way and which Alexeev treated in such a wonderfully improvisatory manner. The ‘più mosso’ was played very deliberately as the melody was interwoven into this knotty twine that was so clearly played. Saving the full impact for the Presto and the passionate build up to the climax of the whole Sonata. The final five chords were played with a monumental sense of colour and effort that kept the unbearable tension until the very last vibrations had died away.
The Schumann Fantasie was preceded by Brahms’ Choral Prelude op 122 n.8 with some very Schumannesque turn of phrase and a magical doubling of octaves before bursting into the red hot passion of the Schumann Fantasie.Written as an outpouring of love for his future wife Clara Wieck Alexeev plunged in with a passion and savage rhythmic intensity that was quite overwhelming .The burning passion and unrelentless forward movement found momentary respite in the ‘Im legendenton’ played with such a mellifluous freedom that the bar lines ceased to exist as it built in tension to the true climax of this movement. The right hand once again found itself in foreign territory as it added to the enormous sonority being created.Schumann’s quote from Beethoven’s ‘An die ferne Geliebte ’ was played with great liberty and I wonder if Alexeev knows something more than is just printed in the score as the movement moved to it’s magical conclusion
The original title of Schumann’s work was “Obolen auf Beethovens Monument: Ruinen, Trophaen, Palmen, Grosse Sonate f.d. Piano f. Für Beethovens Denkmal”. The movements’ subtitles (Ruins, Trophies, Palms) became Ruins, Triumphal Arch, and Constellation, and were then removed altogether before Breitkopf & Härtel eventually issued the Fantasie in May 1839.Dedicated to Franz Liszt, who replied in a letter dated June 5, 1839: “The Fantaisie dedicated to me is a work of the highest kind – and I am really proud of the honour you have done me in dedicating to me so grand a composition” Liszt in return dedicated his B minor Sonata to Schumann – two pinnacles of the Romantic piano repertoire. The piece has its origin in early 1836, when Schumann composed a piece entitled Ruines expressing his distress at being parted from his beloved Clara Wieck (later to become his wife). This later became the first movement of the Fantasy adding later that year two more movements to create a work intended as a contribution to the appeal for funds to erect a monument to Beethoven in his birthplace of Bonn.
So it was hardly surprising the imperious opening of Alexeev’s second movement – Triumphal Arch indeed. Although written mezzo forte in the score it was of truly orchestral proportions building unbelievably in sonority each time it reappeared. The beauty of the ‘etwas langsamer’came as a true relief from the relentless rhythmic drive and enormous sounds that Alexeev coaxed out of this beautiful instrument.
An even greater relief was the pianissimo scherzando before the mighty build up to the infamous leaps that Schumann demands in the ‘più animato’coda. Even here there was a total command and authority that the transcendental difficulties just disappeared in a resonance of overwhelming power and majesty.
“Resounding through all the notes. In the earth’s colourful dream. There sounds a faint long-drawn note.For the one who listens in secret.”is the poem that prefaces the Fantasie and nowhere can it be more appropriate that in the final ‘Langsam getragen Durchweg leise zu halten’. The enormous sforzando E flat chord,ending the second movement,was allowed to die away before the magical opening in C major just seemed to appear from afar. I remember Agosti writing in my score ‘Cla …ra’over the long held A and G as a sign that this really was as Schumann wrote to Clara: ‘the most passionate thing I have ever composed – a deep lament for you.’They still had many tribulations to suffer before they finally married four years later. In Alexeev’s hands there was a continual outpouring of ravishing sounds always with deep,true feeling never for a second becoming sentimental or weak. The three carefully judged final chords brought this miraculous programme to a close ………or so we thought ……not counting in the generosity of this much loved artist.