François-Frédéric Guy: In Recital – On DVD – On CD

Written by: Colin Anderson

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 28 November 2003


Sonata in A, D959


An Schwager Kronos


Sonata in B minor

DVD – NAÏVE DR 2106 (68 minutes)

Recorded 7 August 2002 at La Roque d’Anthéron, Provence, France


Harmonies poétiques et religieuses – Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude; Pensées des morts; Sonata in B minor

CD – NAÏVE V4944 (46’47”)

Recorded 31 May 2003 in the Royal Festival Hall, London


Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Paavo Berglund

Now in his mid-twenties (I guess), the first time I heard François-Frédéric Guy was in a Mozart concerto with Bernard Haitink conducting. I think I was a little disappointed by his ’shyness’ but was struck by his discriminating musicianship. That was a few years ago. Guy has since grown, and is continuing to grow into a major pianist – one who bucks the trend of believing that fast and loud playing is the way to success. Guy is a musician first, one who has a long-viewed and cultured approach to the music he plays.

The recital, part of the South Bank Centre’s International Piano Series, was a particular success. Only one thing was out of place: the encore (finely done as it was) – Liszt’s piano-cliché transcription of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan; the problem was that Liszt’s sonata had all the climactic transformation one needs. Guy should have offered a contrast.

To start with Schubert’s dimensional A major sonata was brave, but Guy’s focus and concentration were fully warmed. Carefully coloured, sounded and pedalled, Guy’s thoughtful dynamics were suggestive of a journey being undertaken, and his malleable tempos for the (repeated) exposition’s subjects were judicious and never threatened the whole. Everything belonged, and if the slow movement could have been more forlorn and, in the climax, more fierce, and the Scherzo less mechanical, the outer movements were compelling for Guy’s shaping and direction; the close of the first movement was rapt indeed.

Guy’s subtlety of touch, and his ease of execution, never trifled with the music. His command and facility are at the service of the music, his view of the Schubert being mature and aware.

In his 12-minute An Schwager Kronos, Hughes Dufourt (born 1943) has chosen a title from Goethe as set by Schubert. I think that’s the only Schubertian connection! However logical the piece may be in terms of analysis, Dufourt’s slow marching chords and the inevitable note-augmented climax filled a familiar template – fine, except it was difficult to hear any real individuality beyond ’modernist’ tendencies.

Liszt’s sonata was, to quote a colleague, “out of this world”. That’ll do me! Incisive and refined, Guy’s poise paid dividends in passages that can spurt off. His erudition created beneficence rather than languor. Guy is neither wayward nor aggressive; he plays Liszt with acuteness and placement. There was, however, no lack of power at the real climaxes – bass notes akin to a revving motor – with Guy’s balance of chords and clarity of fingerwork (not least in fugue) being very impressive. The long silence after the final bass note had faded spoke volumes about Guy’s compelling rendition and an audience that appreciated what it had heard.

Liszt’s sonata is also on the DVD. First-class sound but the pictures are less impressive – too many angles, too much editing. At a concert one chooses where to look or, indeed, closes one’s eyes. Here, in one of eight Naïve DVDs devoted to pianists (Kocsis, Berezovsky, Lewis et al), the camera is rarely still, or a perspective sustained, and some whimsical shots are simply distracting. Certainly, Guy’s facial expressions add something, but after a while I just wanted to listen. Picture off! I then found even more in Guy’s playing, which throughout is very beautiful but never superficial. The sonata, of course, is conceptually similar to Guy’s QEH performance. As befits a developing musician, the London account was that bit more confidently projected in interpretative terms. A year and more after making the film, Guy’s representation of the Liszt sonata is that bit more inimitable. The DVD is certainly a welcome souvenir.

The listen-only CD of the Brahms concerto is highly recommended. I hope the short playing time will not deter purchasers. It’s a live performance. At the concert, Guy, not unreasonably, had the odd slip. All is correct on the CD; presumably the dress rehearsal has saved rather than made the recording. Guy’s clarity of playing and thought, and Paavo Berglund’s authoritative and lucid conducting, made for a memorable concert, and it’s good to have it preserved. The close, unembellished sound is recognisable as being that of the Royal Festival Hall – for good or bad; splendid as far as this reviewer is concerned – and relays an intimate balance between soloist and orchestra, and thus Berglund’s pinpointing of often-lost detail.

The B flat is magnificently done. Guy has the technical wherewithal to sustain this mighty beast of a concerto; he also has, just as importantly, an intelligence that allows the overall structure to be perceived whole. Here is a pianist whose nimble fingers, sensitivity, sparkle and unforced heroics make for something very satisfying. How fortunate for Guy, and us, that a conductor of Berglund’s stature was on hand to forge a partnership rather than ’follow’ the pianist.

François-Frédéric Guy is a pianist of modesty and perception, gifted not just technically, a musician who has well and truly arrived.

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