City of London Festival – Louis Schwizgebel plays Couperin, Holliger, and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit

François Couperin
Pièces de Clavecin – Book II: Les Barricades Mystérieuses
Le tombeau de Couperin
Heinz Holliger
Gaspard de la nuit

Louis Schwizgebel (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 8 July, 2013
Venue: St Mary le Bow, Cheapside, London EC2

Louis Schwizgebel. Photograph: Schwizgebel’s recital in the attractive Christopher Wren church of St Mary le Bow was neatly divided in two. The Swiss pianist introduced Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin after a piece by the memorialised composer, and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit was prefaced by Heinz Holliger’s triptych of night pieces, Elis.

The Couperin was florid and fluent, allowing the ears time to adjust to the reverberation of the airy church, though perhaps inevitably some of the finer details in Schwizgebel’s ornamentation were less immediate. The six-movement Ravel though was a model of clarity, Schwizgebel giving not only an immaculate technical performance but a searching emotional one, completely identifying with Ravel’s subtle and deeply felt music. The lightness of touch in the ‘Prélude’ proved a blueprint for what followed bringing an attractive lilt to the graceful ‘Forlane’. The principal subject of the ‘Fugue’ bore a resemblance to soft bells ringing, while the ‘Menuet’ was thoughtful, its minor-key section beginning like a sigh on the wind before growing to a substantial apex. In the faster music Schwizgebel impressed with a fleet turn of foot, bringing both energy and exuberance to the ‘Rigaudon’ and to the ‘Toccata’, which cast off all shackles for an exuberant coda.

It was difficult to spot the joins in the short if intense Elis, completed by Heinz Holliger in 1961. Given the composer’s writing for the extreme ends of the piano’s register Schwizgebel explored the colours available to him, and also strummed the wires inside the instrument. There were hints at a tonal centre but any sense of resolution was elusive, the silvery threads of melody heard at the start proving difficult to pin down. Gaspard de la nuit was anything but indefinable, Schwizgebel delivering a powerful, colourful and effortless account. The opening of ‘Ondine’ was strongly reminiscent of Liszt, with a barely concealed menace in the opening figure, while in ‘Le gibet’ Schwizgebel did well to hold the tension despite a very slow tempo, evoking the heat-haze of a desert. Finally ‘Scarbo’ was a showstopper, brilliantly played but with no resort to crowd-pleasing, Schwizgebel presenting Ravel’s exquisite hues and shading in their best light. Some devilish and increasingly reckless outbursts gave this reading an extra element of force.

As an encore, Schwizgebel showed incredible control to present Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s song, Erlkönig, his rapid-fire left-hand retaining definition despite the demanded repetitions.

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