Alasdair Beatson at Wigmore Hall

Piano Sonata in F, K332
Nine Preludes, Op.103
Fantasy in C, D760 (Wanderer)

Alasdair Beatson (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 8 May, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Alasdair Beatson. Photograph: Giorgia BertazziAs his previous recitals have shown, the Scottish pianist Alasdair Beatson is no mean programmer – in this instance, the potential fantasy of the Mozart set against the realised fantasy of the Schubert book-ending music by Fauré and Ravel, that however seemingly outgoing, expresses the poise, privacy and reserve that is such an elusive quality of modern French art.

If Beatson hadn’t had such a high degree of empathy with each of his four composers, the results could have seemed a bit too contrived. His attention to the minutiae of phrasing in the Mozart took a bit of getting used to, but it soon became clear that the unexpected accents and elastic ebb and flow of melody were there to shape one of Mozart’s most quirky, almost Haydnesque sonatas. And, for all his action-packed dynamism in the explosive first movement, Beatson was quite happy to stand and stare at the beauties of the Adagio, lightly veiling the appearances of the main theme in romantic half-lights and endowing Mozart’s diaphanous skeins of decoration with bird-song-style grace and freedom. I also much admired Beatson’s sparing use of pedal, so that every detached note and nuance of phrasing made its mark, and showed off the control and clarity of his playing.

Perhaps it’s fanciful to think of him as a Scottish colourist, but Beatson does bring an identifiably grey-green quality to Fauré’s piano writing that deepens its elusiveness. The Nine Preludes, which have a level of abstraction way beyond their Chopin model, reveal Fauré at the top of his considerable form in his incredible understanding and manipulation of harmony, honoured by the subtlety and power of Beatson’s disarmingly direct playing. He delivered the more virtuosic second and fifth of the set with self-effacing sobriety, and was impressively in tune with the concentrated meditation of the first, third, seventh and ninth. This is music that cannot be pinned down – It has its roots in early romanticism and the salon, but is taken to extremes of a peculiarly French ascetism. Beatson’s firm tone and finely judged weight and flexibility got to the hearts of these marvellous pieces, which hint at stature without ever declaring it. His considerable virtuosity was more robustly displayed in a sparkling performance of Ravel’s Sonatine, more-extrovertly impressionist and performed with considerable spirit.

After Gallic obliqueness, Beatson didn’t pull his punches in his visceral performance of Schubert. His tempos were forthright and youthful; the opening conjured up the optimistic swagger, which, for all its dark corners, defines this piece, and the speed he set himself, and kept up, for the start of the fugue sounded thrillingly risky. If he could have made more of the process of retreat in the transition to the Adagio the slow section itself was superb, especially the final ‘Wanderer’ variation, in which the spectral decorations just about remained in contact with the accompaniment. The swirling arpeggios of the Presto section were magnificently clear and climactic, and heralded a finale of ferocious energy and occasional loss of detail – perhaps a little less pedal parsimony might have sustained the music’s irrepressible momentum. Although his performance wasn’t in the visionary league that can distinguish this great work, Beatson’s generosity of tone and weight of expression were completely in the spirit of the piece, with an infectious accumulation of excitement.

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