Chopin
Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58
Rachmaninov
Corelli Variations
Liszt
Transcendental Studies
- No.5 (’Feux Follets’)
- No.8 (’Wilde Jagd’)
- No.10
Liebestraum No.3
Rachmaninov
Prelude, Op.23/No.2

Igor Tchetuev (piano)
This is as civilised a way to spend a Sunday morning as can be imagined – a sumptuous setting, a quality breakfast, the chance to look at a Rembrandt or a Velasquez while listening to a recital. Concerts in palaces and stately homes are common; the difference here is the location, as central as any, is more aesthetically pleasing than all.
Igor Tchetuev’s choice of programme, warhorses of the romantic repertoire, brought a vein of raw passion into the genteel sensibility of the Wallace Collection. These are concerts designed as London debuts; with his ambitious choice of programme, Tchetuev, from Sevastopol in the Crimea, now the Ukraine, set himself up to be compared against the best.
The problem with interpreting Chopin, ironically, is that it plays itself. Get the notes right, with the music so perfectly conceived to show off both instrument and performer (it is already exactly balanced between virtuosity and lyricism), and you cannot fail. It is precisely this that makes great Chopin playing rare – only the exceptional pianist can add illumination. Within Chopin’s last Sonata there is a scale that demands keen sensitivity to structure and emotion; it is infinitely harder than performing a set of disconnected miniatures.
Tchetuev made light of the technical problems, but his reading remained earth-bound – the opening literal, the fleet scherzo rushed and without space to breathe. In a sense, he was bolder with the choice of programme than with the execution. Those descending scales in the second theme of the finale could have been much less inhibited, the stepwise movement of the main theme more varied, the chord sequences executed with more risk and freedom, less iron control. Even in the slow movement, it was as if Tchetuev did not realise how much time he had to play the music: “You have more time than you think,” is a common admonishment to nervous players. Of course, this lucidity of approach paid dividends in certain places – the often-opaque beginning to the first movement’s development emerged wonderfully comprehensible, for example.
I cannot pretend to explain how the world’s greatest pianists achieve a perfect illusion of legato – they must have an intuitive sense of the infinitesimal gradations of melody as well as innate technical control – Tchetuev does not have it yet. Nor did he supply any corresponding freshness or originality, the exhilaration of discovery or of powers being explored. It may well be that the acoustic was not the most helpful. Our apprehension of romanticism takes place on the dryness of modern halls; in something closer to the large salon for which Chopin wrote, but with a fuller, louder, modern piano, the subtleties of nuance and discrimination were difficult for Tchetuev to control.
His Rachmaninov was much more successful. Corelli’s theme, ’La Folia’, perfectly in period with the Fragonards and Watteaus in the adjoining room, and the spare harmonies with which the piece begins seemed to be an ideal blend of sound and setting. The greater discipline of variation-form suited Tchetuev, giving him the opportunity to offer a distinctive interpretation of the work as brooding and troubled, a farewell to piano composition for Rachmaninov that was by turns nostalgic, angry and regretful – anything but resigned.
There is no doubt Tchetuev was technically well-equipped for this piece. His octaves in variation ’5’, the virtuosity of ’7’ and ’12’, the mordant wit of ’16’ and ’17’, and the bell-like tone of ’18’ were all very impressive. Similarly, the chromatic ’misterioso’ of ’8’, or the grotesque side of the ’intermezzo’ were well evoked – this was the dark side of romanticism, the Rachmaninov of Russian folk tales. Conversely, the performance was quite unsmiling. There are surely moments of lightness in the piece - the ’scherzando’ of variation ’10’ is surely playful, not relentlessly threatening, as Tchetuev played it. The slow variations, such as ’14’ and ’15’, are moments of emotional respite; Tchetuev remained tense. The biggest challenge in these variations is to precisely integrate their disparate emotional strands, and in this respect, Tchetuev, lurching between heart-on-sleeve intensity and charging aggression, was less successful.
I wonder at the wisdom of then playing three of Liszt’s studies; so much unremitting virtuosity left one rather battered. It appeared as if Tchetuev was devoting his concentration to technical accuracy. What set Liszt and Chopin apart was their ability to transmute technical fireworks into musical depth. This demands a corresponding sensibility from the player. Tchetuev may well have it; if not, his technical tools are certainly the firmest of foundations for it, but it was not evident today.’Feux Follets’, for example, was rapid and accurate, but it was neither playful nor effortless – the truest virtuosity is sleight-of-hand, rather than something at which one openly marvels.
Perhaps Tchetuev was playing to his strengths. The famous Liebestraum, first encore, again showed his reluctance to let himself go; shorn of the cloaking of his enviable fingerwork, the Rachmaninov Prelude that followed, though fiery and passionate, remained nervy too.
Tchetuev has time and technique on his side – he is only twenty – and he can clearly play anything in the repertoire he chooses. If he can relax on the concert platform, the soul and poetry to which press quotations refer, but which were not evident here, will no doubt emerge.

 

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