Emmanuel Despax at Wigmore Hall

Bach, arr. Busoni
Chorale Prelude, Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ
Bach, arr. Myra Hess
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
Pictures at an Exhibition
Barcarolle, Op.60
Twelve Etudes, Op.10

Emmanuel Despax (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 19 September, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Emmanuel Despax. ©Clive BardaWinner of the Dudley International Piano Competition 2009, the French pianist Emmanuel Despax (born 1984) has made his home in England and is rapidly building an impressive career. This was his third appearance at Wigmore Hall although ironically he has yet to appear in Paris where he is scheduled to appear at Salle Gaveau next year. Whether this oddly constructed programme, with Pictures at an Exhibition as its centrepiece rather than its climax, showed him to best advantage is a moot point.

The evening got off to a sombre start with Busoni’s crepuscular arrangement of ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ which he described as a transcription “arranged in chamber-music style”. Here and in the much better-known ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ (as arranged by Myra Hess), Despax exhibited a fine sense of line and a welcome care for quality of sound. However in the latter he was only partially successful in separating out the recurring Chorale entries from their rippling accompaniment – ideally the two should co-exist but on separate planes, the accompaniment a rock steady obbligato onto which the Chorale is periodically grafted. Despax had a tendency to over-inflect the triplet accompaniment, adding a layer of sophistication and rhythmic flexibility which felt out of place in this timeless music.

Doubts of a different sort surfaced during Despax’s performance of Pictures. In the first place, the structural role of each ‘Promenade’ is to get us from painting to painting, a linking function, whereas Despax seemed to assign equal musical weight to them, investing them with a significance they really do not merit and looking for profundity where none exists. The canvases themselves were characterised with varying degrees of success – the lighter numbers like ‘Tuileries’, the chattering ‘Housewives of Limoges’ and the ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’ came off well, but ‘Gnomus’ was subjected to some very mannered phrasing and the ‘Polish Ox’ lumbered mightily from the outset at a steady ff. Here and at the work’s climax there was a definite sense of a sledgehammer employed to crack a nut, the constant determination to project at all costs eventually becoming wearing.

Altogether more satisfactory was the Chopin second half in which Despax’s rhythmic fluidity and technical facility served the music well. It opened with an initially full-toned and rather laboured account of the Barcarolle which did not bode well but then improved greatly in a more sensitive treatment of the central section. The Opus 10 Études open with what someone once jokingly called “this runaway chorale” and are dedicated to Liszt who played them repeatedly. Even today they present any pianist with a series of formidable challenges. Despax certainly surmounted most of their demands, despatching the trickier ones such as the second (aimed at equalising the development of the third, fourth and fifth fingers of the right hand) with aplomb and bringing a singing cantilena touch to the slower numbers. However, on occasion he was cavalier over dynamics and tended to overplay – an altogether lighter touch and greater contrast between forte and piano in the mercurial fifth study would have been welcome – but for the most part this was an impressive traversal of this pianistic and musical obstacle course. Chopin’s Berceuse was the encore, beautifully voiced.

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