Préludes – Book II
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses – Funérailles
Concert Paraphrase of Rigoletto
Aldo Ciccolini (piano)
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: 6 July, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
I came to this recital with some trepidation. Romantic and Impressionist pieces too often degenerate into a bombastic succession of meaningless notes. Few pianists realise that the most musical performances are those that most firmly harness technique to the service of the composer’s intention, not the interpreter’s ego. Nor, within the oeuvre of each composer, is this easy repertoire to respond to. Debussy’s Book II Préludes are generally less accessible than their predecessors; and though the Consolations are transparently attractive, Funérailles can seem ponderous, the Mephisto Polka over-quirky, and the Rigoletto paraphrase indigestible.
In none of these respects was Aldo Ciccolini culpable. He gave us an emotionally rich evening, in which all the music was strongly characterised and played with authority. Ciccolini’s playing was especially notable for its clarity of both structure and texture; he displayed the strength of will and certainty of direction we associate with ‘Golden Age’ pianists.
In the Debussy, we saw Général Lavine strutting on the stage, smiled at Mr Pickwick’s jollity, mourned with Liszt at the downfall of the Hungarian uprising and experienced just the right note of irony in the almost parodic Mephisto Polka. Rigoletto was genuinely operatic, a mise en scène, an enactment of conflicting dramatic positions. Ciccolini is especially noted for playing the music of his adopted France; Debussy’s Préludes emerged with the idiomatic fluency of a lifelong supporter – the pure impression of ‘Brouillards’, the harmonies of ‘Canope’ beautifully elucidated, and ‘Les tierces alternées’ commendably precise and light.
Ciccolini’s control of diverse elements seemed at its best when the piano-writing is complex. At moments of chorale-like writing, his pedagogical excellence could seem pedantic; ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’ was more ‘terre’ than ‘lune’, while both ‘Feuilles mortes’ and ‘Bruyères’ were leaden at times. Even with the help of the silky Fazioli piano, Ciccolini’s tone sometimes became hard-edged in loud passages. His lyricism was at its best when musically integrated – as in the treble figurations of ‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’ or ‘Ondine’ – than when compelled to sustain legato within a simpler melody. Liszt’s (six) Consolations, for example, were played as a single work. The penultimate Andantino was especially fine, but, overall, the set never truly took flight.
I was admiring and impressed if not quite poetically transported. But these are small things. Overall, this was a profoundly satisfying recital, which ended with two encores, both unknown to the writer; the last being one of those finger-twisting creations that Ciccolini dispatched with amazing dexterity.
Ciccolini will be 80 on 15 August. His distinguished career extends nearly 60 years, and he remains teaching and recording. Here he played with the athleticism of someone a quarter his age. Ciccolini’s achievement was all the more remarkable given that no allowances needed be made for his ‘veteran’ status.