Bryan Wallick – Wigmore Debut (25 September)

Toccata in D, BWV 912
Fantasie in C, Op.17
Sonata No.1
Excursions, Op.20
Sonata No.5, Op.53

Bryan Wallick (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 25 September, 2003
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

On several counts the young American pianist Bryan Wallick’s Wigmore Hall debut turned out to be an evening full of contradictions. First, having been told by the Wigmore Hall box office earlier in the day that the recital was sold out, come the actual evening the Hall was only two thirds full. Second, the event itself was a curious inversion of the ’celebrity recital’ – the audience, largely made up of the pianist’s New York-based patrons, many of whom had flown in for the occasion, were the celebrities. The Patron’s committee includes Peter C Jennings and Walter Cronkite … whilst the performer is as yet a virtual unknown. Third, one anticipates playing of youthful dash and impetuosity, especially in a programme containing the Schumann Fantasy and one of Scriabin’s most way-out pieces. What we had in this music was carefully considered, laboured even.

Wallick’s initial caution might have been partly to do with the occasion itself – after all it cannot be easy for a young performer, even a Gold Medallist in the Horowitz Piano Competition, to live up to the hype – but on the evidence of this recital Wallick really does not do ’emotion’. What he does have is a solid technique and a well-balanced piano sound that never degenerates into mere noise. Wallick is at his best (as yet) in athletic music that does not call for deeper, emotional commitment.

A hint of things to come with the Bach Toccata. The ’Gigue’ which closes the piece was crisply and rhythmically despatched, whereas the improvisatory central slow section found him all at sea, literal to a point.

Schumann marked the first movement of his Fantasy, “To be played fantastically and passionately throughout”. Wallick’s was slow and careful “throughout”. There is, of course, a place for musical understatement. Here nothing quite connected, the magic absent, the music failing to soar. The triumphant central March fared better, though as with many other pianists, the coda found even Wallick’s not inconsiderable technique stretched. The finale, after ruinous applause, which Richter memorably described as “a night without stars”, one of music’s greatest love poems, was lacking in that deep emotional tug which should have an audience hanging on every note.

The interval of 35 minutes was similarly protracted, the ’Celebrity Audience’ notably unwilling to return. Normally one of the great joys of the Wigmore Hall for a performer is a sense of playing for knowledgeable, appreciative patrons. On this occasion the audience appeared more interested in being seen – and being heard, shifting in their seats and rustling through their programmes.

Fortunately, performance-wise, things improved dramatically in the second half. First up, Australian Carl Vine’s Sonata (1991), unusually, for a piano work, commissioned by a dance company (Sydney) to be choreographed. Endless arpeggios and ostinatos, but it received an appropriately high-energy performance.

Samuel Barber’s Excursions proved the highlight of the concert. These four character pieces – boogie-woogie, blues, a wistful set of variations on “The Streets of Laredo” and a sublimated hoedown – received an absolutely splendid performance, especially touching in the third movement variations and all the better for a degree of understatement so very much in tune with Barber’s reticent genius.

Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata is music of a Rasputin-like intensity and hypnotic violence, music that lives on its nerves, fin de siècle decadent, neurasthenic, music poised on the edge of a precipice, eddying back and forth in sudden volatile surges. Wallick was too clean by half, rather like a fresh-faced College graduate who has strayed into a world of sex and cocaine-fuelled violence – where he patently does not belong. He can play the actual notes – and he played them well – but the dangerous realities of this music lie between the notes; on this occasion danger was in short supply.

There were two encores, a chaste performance of a Rachmaninov Prelude and a toccata-like piece by York Bowen despatched with an appropriately all-out athleticism.

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