Debussy
Pour le piano
Janacek
In the Mists
Liszt
Mephisto Waltz No.1
Transcendental Etudes [Numbers 8, 9 & 10]
Smetana
Macbeth and the Witches
On the Seashore

Lukas Vondracek (piano)
This was simply one of the most inspirational concerts I have attended in months, and in terms of freshness, originality and enthusiasm, I have heard nothing so good this calendar year. Vondracek, just turned sixteen, has all the advantages of youth: an enormous natural joy in playing, a sense of discovery and experiment, and complete fearlessness; and, seemingly, none of the disadvantages: inhibition, superficiality or limitation. Except to register his physical appearance, I was never once in the recital reminded of his age.
The first half was intelligently devoted to the music of Vondracek’s native Czech Republic. It gave him the chance to play the music that had been ’in his blood’ so to speak, and deflect from himself the distorting mirror of hyper-criticism that attends London debuts. He also allowed us to hear rare treasures. Smetana, indeed! Although clearly heard is the influence of better known works – the Seashore reminiscent of Chopin’s Etude Op.25/1, while Macbeth is a macabre version of Papillons.
The Janacek showed a more reflective side of Czech music, and of Vondracek’s playing. Characteristically divided between meditative folk-style melodies and chorale-like passages, so intangible a piece became almost transparent under Vondracek’s certain guidance. Both Smetana and Janacek were played with colour and certainty, and well crafted to convey the supernatural without seeming puzzling. By the interval, Vondracek had proved a fine pianist – at least on his own territory.
There was no disappointment with mainstream repertoire. Vondracek approached Pour le piano with boldness, a sense of risk-taking that had me on the edge of my seat. The ’Prelude’ made full use of rubato and agogic variation, not hesitating to pull the music about for dramatic effect, allowing us to enjoy vicariously what it must be like when such music is still so new. And he played Liszt exactly as he should be played – with sufficient technical mastery that the music behind the forest of notes can emerge. Liszt does not benefit from sounding effortful – the virtuoso writing is altogether more impressive as a by-product of the melodic structures. Impressive were Vondracek’s variations of light and shade in the ├ętudes – noted was the loving beauty of the lyrical episodes in ’Wilde Jagd’ and the sparkling semiquaver triplets of No.10 – which showed there seemed no bounds to his pianism. Mephisto Waltz was full of energy and heroism, and totally free from stumbling or doubt.
The word ’prodigy’ implies a natural ability which exceeds what either training or life-experience can reasonably give. This is clearly true of Vondracek’s past – he gave his first recital at the age of four, before he could properly read music, but when he already had the ability to mimic, by watching and listening, what his parents were playing. It is equally true of him now.
I do not pretend that Vondracek is the finished article. A young man, still spreading his wings and discovering the extremes of the repertoire, would clearly find pieces of restraint and profundity more troublesome than this combination of his native tradition and extrovert works. His technique is formidable – if occasionally cautious; the end of Debussy’s ’Toccata’ given for the sake of cleaner delivery. Not every risk came off – Liszt’s ’Ricordanza’ was played with less certainty and conviction than the other ├ętudes.
For the meantime we can celebrate a pianist who plays with such natural confidence, with so little inhibition, and with such ingeniousness – as his platform manner and his touching, simple programme note indicated. In sharing with the audience his own sense of pleasure in and discovery of the music, Vondracek demonstrated exactly the point of concerts – communication of spontaneity possible only in real time, in a single place, the endless recreation of art by performance. If he devotes himself solely to the piano, then his talent, technique, love of music, and powerful advocates (one being Ashkenazy who was conducting in the Barbican while this recital unfolded), will ensure Vondracek becoming one of the world’s great pianists.

 

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