Concert for Alexis – Simon Mulligan

32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80
Sonate en État de Jazz [UK premiere]
Variations on a Theme by Rode, Op.33 (La Ricordanza)
Sonata in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)
Concert Arabesques on The Beautiful Blue Danube

Simon Mulligan (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 January, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Alexis in question is Alexis Weissenberg, one of the great pianists (although that is not a universally held opinion!). Simon Mulligan celebrated “his good friend and mentor” with a programme that included music closely associated with Weissenberg (with a doubt in this regard to the Schulz-Evler) and including an example of Weissenberg’s own compositional output. There seemed no particular reason to hold this recital now – no ‘significant’ birthday (Weissenberg was born in Sofia in 1929 and is now happily ensconced in Switzerland, although his public-performance days seem over, regrettably) – and given Weissenberg has been more lauded in Europe and America, that a ‘Weissenberg tribute’ was happening in the UK (with his two daughters in attendance) only added to the ‘surprising’ nature of the recital. A nice surprise!

Simon Mulligan’s versatility is amply detailed in his biography; classical and jazz music, composer, and collaborator with such as Joshua Bell, Shirley Bassey and Van Morrison. His playing of Beethoven here somewhat missed the mark. Technically Mulligan lacks that last degree of transcendence to avoid sounding effortful, such as in the finale of the ‘Appassionata’, which was taken at a whirlwind, blurring tempo with nothing in reserve for the (here imploding) coda. Otherwise this was a lightweight, rather soft-grained approach (the antithesis of Weissenberg’s own recording!) that viewed the music rather too objectively for its colouristic and dynamic possibilities, the slow movement just a little to ‘simple’ in expression over its whole course. Such calculation both illuminated and impeded (in equal measure) the C minor Variations; Mulligan’s wide-ranging response was intriguing but also mannered.

The slighter fare by Czerny (a friend of Beethoven) and Schulz-Evler went well but lacked spontaneity; both pieces are charmers if trite and were just a bit too ‘serious’ here. (Interesting that Schulz-Evler’s decorations of Johann Strauss should appear so soon after Rustem Hayroudinoff offered this showpiece as an encore at his pre-Christmas Wigmore recital.) Mulligan should have allowed a few seconds more silence at the quiet close of the Czerny; there’ll always be someone in the audience only to eager to applaud (or blow their nose throughout the evening … as one woman did, usually in the quiet bits!).

The highlight of the concert was Weissenberg’s own sonata – although the encore (by Mulligan?) was a delight, too, and reminded of Billy Mayerl – music that Mulligan has recorded – for Nimbus, an all-Weissenberg CD. Sonate en État de Jazz is a fascinating work in four movements of 25 minutes duration. It has the strict organisation (and complexity) that Schoenberg would have been proud of together with jazz harmonies that never seem added on (‘fourth stream’?). The middle movements are the most contrasted; a phantasmagorical scherzo followed by a melancholic middle-of-the-night, the-world-viewed-through-an-empty-glass slow movement (although the composer, in his engaging programme note, swears to “an undisputed state of sobriety” whilst writing!). The outer movements are unpredictable, the finale, a sort of merry-go-round, may contain a buried-deep quotation: “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” came to mind; maybe, maybe not!.

Simon Mulligan gave a committed and bravura performance and I urge you to try his Weissenberg CD (Nimbus NI 5688). And well done for keeping Weissenberg’s name in view.

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