Piano Sonata No.1 in C, Op.1
Der Wanderer, S558/11
Der Müller und der Bach, S565/2
Die Stadt, S560/1
Am Meer, S560/4
Fantasy in C, D760 (Wandererfantaisie)
Alexandre Kantorow (piano)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 8 March, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Alexandre Kantorow comes with a formidable pedigree – winner of the 2019 Tchaikovsky Competition as well as its rarely awarded Grand Prix – that declares itself unequivocally in playing of rare quality. All those aspects of virtuoso performance, from technique to rapport, not only dazzle the listener but also complement each other, and the result is engagement at a very high level. After the first movement of the Brahms Sonata, the listener could reasonably assume that this was how the young, handsome firebrand composer-pianist could well have played this mighty sequel to Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’. As required, Kantorow can blend ferocious strength and agility to produce a majestic sound, without dropping a stitch in terms of accent, speed and nuance to signal the music’s symphonic aspirations. This was Brahms at his most heroic and optimistic, delivered with uncanny sense of identification. Kantorow was similarly on-song in the Andante variations, when he caught the moonlit drift of mystery and romance in a translucent, poetic, almost erotic performance, a long way from the muted regret and acceptance of the piano music the bearded, intensely private older Brahms would write.
As recital openers go, that was quite something, but then after the interval Kantorow surpassed himself in a selection of five Liszt transcriptions of songs by Schubert, which Kantorow played with an exceptional awareness of how to mediate between the two composers’ style and character. Immediately you could appreciate how Liszt could broaden these songs’ horizons while still respecting their original scale. Briefly Liszt the shaman-showman owns them before he returns them to the less extrovert Schubert.
It could have been back to barnstorming C-major for Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy – which, interestingly, Liszt converted into a piano concerto, in the process diminishing its impact considerably. However, Kantorow kept faith with the work’s stupendous flights of imagination and expertly managed delays of expectation, and while his virtuosity was marvellous, the bigger miracle was the lightness and fluency of his playing, so that mood, weight and character could adapt instantaneously. Many of the finest pianists make you aware of the effort involved in getting the ‘Wanderer’ into full flight, but Kantorow was more concerned with revealing how the drama’s focus fades then coalesces, brilliantly so in the approach to the triumphant peroration of the concluding fugue.
Generously there were three encores, another of Liszt’s Schubert transcriptions, the Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen, D343a, (‘Litany for All Souls’ Day’), Cziffra’s version of the violinist Franz von Vecsey’s Valse Triste (Bartók accompanied Vecsey on his tours round Hungary), and, for some unabashed, finger-tingling playing, Volodos’s loopy version of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca.