Andrew Zolinsky: Transcendental Piano (7 & 8 February, Blackheath Halls)

Saturday 7 February at 3p.m.
Sunday 8 February at 11.30 a.m. & 3.30 p.m.

Fantasia in C minor, K396
Six Piano Pieces, Op.118
Six Little Piano Pieces, Op.19
Klavierstück VI (Bagatellen)
Sonata in C minor, Op.111

Ordre No.26
Tantris the Clown (Masques)
Peace piece
Arc-en-ciel; Fanfares (Etudes, Book I)
Carnaval, Op.9

Aeolian Harp
In a Landscape
Prelude and Blues
Jazz Sonata
Piano Fantasy

Andrew Zolinsky (piano)

Reviewed by: John Fallas

Reviewed: 8 February, 2004
Venue: Recital Room. Blackheath Halls, London SE3

I’m not one to put people into categories, but one could have two classes of pianist – those who refine their technique and expressive grasp to communicate from the smallest nuances – of tone, colour and dynamics – to the greatest structural arcs; and those who seek their critical plaudits elsewhere – for unusual and inventive programming, and advocacy of neglected composers or epochs.

It’s a tribute to Andrew Zolinsky’s versatility as a performer of the second type that he should undertake a series of concerts of such diverse repertoire. I don’t know whether Zolinsky is capable of subtle dynamic shading and tonal variety; certainly Blackheath Recital Hall’s ill-cared-for and tonally unyielding Bösendorfer didn’t allow him to reveal such concerns. It was fitting, then, that in this “Transcendental Piano” series he took a more diachronic view of his instrument’s, or its repertoire’s, virtues.

In three carefully planned and nicely timed recitals, Zolinsky presented works that he considered to have changed the course of piano music. Three substantial statements – Beethoven’s ultimate sonata, Schumann’s Carnaval, and Copland’s Piano Fantasy, which latter Zolinsky regards as a neglected masterpiece – were complemented by shorter pieces arranged thematically or to highlight patterns of influence, with Zolinsky an attractive guide in his appositely-pitched spoken introductions.

It’s an approach, of course, that can never be comprehensive, and while by no means a criticism, it’s worth registering what another pianist might have chosen differently: alternative paths to beat through this particular historical jungle. Messiaen, whose intense reliance on a language of colour might have challenged both Zolinsky and his instrument. Finnissy, Rzewski et al, virtuoso composer-pianists in a line from Liszt through Alkan and Sorabji. Boulez, Stockhausen and Barraqué, avatars of high modernism 1950s-style. Bartók and Stravinsky, conceivers of the piano as a member of the percussion family. None of these were here (Debussy appeared as an encore), though there was plenty to compensate.

So what did Zolinsky include? Brahms, whose six Op.118 Pieces influenced in different ways both Schoenberg (whose set of six Klavierstücke, Op.19, followed Brahms’s in the first programme) and Ligeti – two of whose Etudes sat alongside Chopin and Bill Evans on the Sunday morning. It was the rhythmic displacements and uncertainties of both the Brahms and Ligeti pieces that Zolinsky sought to emphasise, as well as Ligeti’s common ground with the improvisatory jazz of Evans’s Peace Piece and with its nineteenth-century salon predecessor the Chopin Berceuse, which may even have specifically influenced Evans in its unfolding of decorative complexities over an unchanging ostinato bass. In this performance Chopin’s flights of fancy never got off the ground – the lightness forced, the virtuosity straitjacketed, the whimsy absent, as was the sense of magical inwardness.

A further strand in this second concert was the Commedia dell’arte influence, which justified the inclusion alongside Carnaval of a character-piece by Szymanowski – Tantris the Clown, brought off successfully enough – and a suite by François Couperin, five pieces with programmatic titles, in the fourth of which, L’Epineuse, Zolinsky discovered a most un-Baroque but undeniably effective still centre. Elsewhere, as in the third piece, La Sophie, he was clear, clean and straightforward, no bad thing to be from time to time. Carnaval, like a couple of pieces the day before, suffered occasionally from failings of memory and fudged finger-work.

In the absence of Stockhausen we got his pupil Wolfgang Rihm (born 1952): the sixth of his early Klavierstücke, composed in his twenties, named in homage to his teacher’s landmark series but sharing with them perhaps mainly the willingness for length greater than the title might seem to imply. This one wasn’t a great deal shorter than the entire Brahms sequence. Nevertheless it was enjoyable and fitted well into the programme, even if doubts have been raised about the ultimate value of Rihm’s earlier music.

In the third concert the Copland Fantasy was introduced by a first half of shorter works written in America in the preceding three decades: pieces by Cowell, Cage, Antheil, Nancarrow and Wolpe. It’s a pity we didn’t get to hear some of Wolpe’s fiercer piano pieces, extraordinary as they are, and another pianist might have given a Nancarrow player-piano study in one of the live performing versions that now exist, but Zolinsky found less-played works which were worth hearing. The Antheil in particular proved a highlight of this final programme, with Zolinsky’s virtuosity at its height in the brief but intense Jazz Sonata.

In short, this was a concert series that probably fulfilled many of its aims but could have aimed higher at times. Still, the Beethoven Op. 111 was decently played and there were surely repertoire discoveries to be made in the course of the weekend for any listener, whether in Couperin or Copland.

It’s a pity that Blackheath’s audience seems, at least on this showing, so limited in age and number. The location is not terribly far out of central London, and the trains are easy and frequent. It’s a lovely venue, especially for daytime concerts such as these with the sunlight flooding in, and a pleasant place to spend this particular weekend.

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