Schubert
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960
Debussy
Images – Books 1 and 2
Dusapin
Four Etudes

Alain Planes (piano)
How hard it is to be a great pianist. Nowadays, technical accuracy and fidelity to the text is demanded; also, magic, that X-factor, originality that makes performances stand out from mass-produced correctness. One must be seen tackling the great peaks of the repertoire, yet it is here that the highest and most forbidding standards are to be found. Nor is London, with its cornucopia of recitals, an especially forgiving environment.
Alain Planes is competent and workmanlike. He plays with determination, he gives weight to drama, and he does not fall into being sentimental. He is though irremediably earth-bound. I cannot recall a single moment of true enchantment in this recital; even the extraordinary modulation into the major near the end of slow movement of the Schubert passed by unexploited. Poetry of interpretation is how pianists transcend the percussive limitations of the instrument. Planes was all-prose. He plays literally, eschews rubato and emotional intensity, and he denies himself – or is incapable of – the hushed pianissimo that is the hallmark of so many great pianists … Uchida, Zimerman or Gieseking to name past and present pianists famous in this repertoire. By carefully weighing the different notes of a chord, or bringing out a counter-melody as varied part-writing, Schubert and Debussy’s textures are granted complexity, an endless interest that co-exists perfectly with sonic transparency. In comparison, Planes was relentlessly one-dimensional. I marvel at how great pianists manage this combination of intuitive mastery and relentlessly practised detail, but it is, felicitously, common enough in what one is offered in London, that I sure missed its absence here.
Planes began his recital with the great Schubert B flat sonata. An immensely bold musical gauntlet – Curzon, Kempff and Kovacevich, to name just the first that come to mind, have made legendary recordings of this work. The last live performance I heard was Perahia’s. Planes does not belong in this company and I fear, on this evidence, that it is uncertain how his project to record all Schubert’s sonatas will contribute anything lasting to our understanding of these works. The first movement, including the long exposition repeat, did not really hold the interest. Planes’s view of Schubert is clearly in the Brendel rather than the Curzon camp – that drama and masculinity should not be sacrificed for lyricism. Sadly, too many details were ignored and opportunities missed – that gentle flourish in the bass that ends the first phrase was too loud; those arpeggios in the development played without any melodic inflection.
I should, in fairness, commend Planes for the originality of bringing out the dance-like rhythms of the slow movement’s middle episode, and also of the ingenuous charm of the straightforward finale. Nevertheless, the consistency of his approach made the trio to the scherzo not so much mysterious, sinister or modernist, just puzzling; the scherzo itself insufficiently light.
Planes chose, unusually, to play from the score (as throughout); nevertheless, his execution was far from perfect. Schubert tends to be more awkward than difficult, and is hardly ever virtuosic. The B flat is technically innocuous for such a monumental and important work.But it is extremely exposed. The merest fluff in chains of arpeggios or in crystalline chordal textures is impossible to conceal. There were a number of such blemishes in the first movement, and Planes seemed nervous at the start of the second.
Would he improve in his native French music? ’Reflets dans l’eau’ was brisk and efficient rather than shimmering; ’Mouvement’ was foursquare rather than fleet. Planes was at his best in ’Hommage a Rameau’, his combination of discipline and exact rhythm well suited giving an appropriate stateliness and measured forward motion. In the second set, the chime effects and pedal notes of ’Cloches a travers les feuilles’ fared better than the sleight of hand required for ’Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut’ or the quicksilver of ’Poissons d’or’. Impressionism in piano music depends on a degree of illusion, rather than smoothing-over the occasional infelicities of music written ’absolutely’. It was difficult to judge whether Planes’s lack of imagination was a modernist, conscious choice or artistic limitation.
The length and emotional depth of Schubert’s sonata makes demanding listening; after both books of Images, even a predominantly French audience was in no mood to listen to nearly half-an-hour of modernist studies, and became increasingly restive. Pascal Dusapin (born 1955) comes from Nancy; his work shows the influence of Varese; these Etudes are an exploration of piano sonorities as much as technique. It was commendable for Planes to introduce them to us, even if they would have been easier digested earlier in the recital.
Of the first two Etudes, one displays Baroque influences, the second is a modernised version of Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso. Here, Planes’s virtues of directness and drive cut through the potential difficulties of relatively inaccessible music. The third study, however, where Dusapin’s affection for repeated notes was taken to an extreme, was the hardest to appreciate; the final, carillon-like piece is a distant and demented relative of the last movement of Poulenc’s Suite Francaise. Chords are gradually deconstructed into constituents.

 

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