Definitely not by moonlight – Cascioli (11 May)

Sonatas quasi una fantasia, Op.27 – No.1 in E flat, No.2 in C sharp minor (Moonlight)
Polonaise in A, Op.40
Nocturnes – in E flat, Op.9/2 & F sharp, Op.15/2
Waltzes – in E flat, Op.18, A minor, Op.34/2 & D flat, Op.64
Berceuse in D flat, Op.57
Impromptu in A flat, Op.29
Fantaisie-impromptu in C sharp minor, Op.66
Scherzo No.2 in B flat minor, Op.31

Gianluca Cascioli (piano)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 11 May, 2003
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

It seems incredible that it is nearly a decade since Gianluca Cascioli emerged as a major pianist. Who? Gianluca Cascioli! At 15 – in 1994 – he won first prize in the first-ever Umberto Micheli International Piano Competition, which had a determinedly contemporary slant, perhaps best evidenced by two of its jury panel, Luciano Berio and Maurizio Pollini. As part of the prize Cascioli was given an International Piano Series recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and – at Berio and Pollini’s joint request in view of the winner’s young age – the actual recital was delayed by a season.

So it was that Cascioli made his UK première at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday 8 October 1996 at 3.30pm playing Beethoven’s Opp.26 and 27/1 sonatas followed by Debussy’s Preludes Book I.Since then he has appeared again in the series – with a much more fiercely combative programme (from Bach to Boulez’s Notations) – and made three CDs for DG: two collections and one, building on some of the earlier recordings, of Beethoven’s Variations; all now deleted. However, his career has taken him to the top of the ladder through performances with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic.

So he returned to the Queen Elizabeth Hall this Sunday night, some seven-and-a-half-years after his debut, for his third recital in the International Piano Series. Completely coincidentally he played one of the same works – Beethoven’s Op.27/1, this time coupled with its better known stable-mate, the famous Moonlight – while the second half was devoted to a clutch of popular Chopin. Obviously more of an audience-draw than Boulez, the QEH was a good two-thirds full and received him with warm acclamation.

He is an intriguing pianist to watch, contained and almost unaware of the audience (a slight look into the auditorium at a persistent alarm aside). He mostly holds his long fingers on long hands close to the keys as he stares over the soundboard of the instrument into the middle distance. Like Radu Lupu (although favouring a piano stool rather than Lupu’s hard-back chair) Cascioli seems oblivious to the whole nature of some form of platform persona and concentrates solely on the music. Yet his studied observance of the middle distance faltered as he relaxed in the second half and his movements freed up, although never to the point of complete abandon. It may, of course, be his response to the composers, but in any case there was much to enjoy here.

As the annotator for the International Piano Series I was intrigued to read at the head of my notes Cascioli’s comments about the Beethoven pair of ’quasi una fantasia’ sonatas. There is, seemingly, a theory from a German analyst that both are based on Shakespeare plays – the first what Cascioli described as the “comedy” The Merchant of Venice and the second the tragedy King Lear. Listening to his lucid accounts of both I’m puzzled at what Beethoven might have thought the connections were, especially in the E flat, which seems to have none of the cultural shock of two religions clashing in a court of law. Cascioli’s contention that the C sharp minor sonata is emphatically not about moonlight is a little disingenuous – even Czerny’s comments about the opening movement being about death (which, admittedly, ties in with King Lear) report Beethoven’s avowed inspiration as a scene of a burial at night. However, such extra-musical concerns did not spoil Cascioli’s refined pianism.

One niggling point is his swallowing of phrase and, more importantly, movement endings. The first movement of Op.27/1 seemed to be preternaturally curtailed and there were a couple of other occasions in the Chopin group. On the other hand he impressively engineered, unobtrusively if not accidentally, a seamless flow to the Chopin selection, with the audience respectfully silent between each piece. The resultant ’more than the sum of its parts’ feel was cumulatively engendered, ending in a quirky rendition of the Second Scherzo that almost – but thankfully not quite – veered into the realms of Olli Mustonen-like heightened dramatics, with some clipped phrases and unorthodox readings.

By this time, drama had infused Cascioli’s manner, and at the repeated short phrases first heard at the Scherzo’s beginning, then throughout, he would hold his hands off the keyboard at chest height before plunging into the next passage. Yet, overall, he controlled both textures and dynamics and coaxed real musical argument out of the piano – a refreshing change to Kissin’s style of pummelling both work and instrument to death in a desperate attempt to hide musical inadequacies (Kissin’s ’rendition’ of the B flat Scherzo at the Proms as an encore after his Chopin First Concerto with Mehta a few years back was the nadir of solo piano performance).

For his encore, Cascioli played the Grande Polonaise, Op.22 – which is best known in its orchestral guise prefaced by the solo Andante spianato – a suitably celebratory work to close an enjoyable and successful recital.

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