Harmoniques – Frank Braley Concert

Jatekok (selection)
Andante con variazioni in F minor
Sonata in A flat, Op.110
Preludes (selected from both books)
Rhapsody in Blue

Frank Braley (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 October, 2001
Venue: Purcell Room, London

In an age when some commentators bemoan (with some justification) the lack of individuality among today’s instrumentalists, Frank Braley should be heard: like another Frank, Braley does it his way. More than likely though the people who report clone-like interpretations wouldn’t have ventured to Braley’s debut London recital: “I don’t know who he is” – nor will you if you don’t make the effort.

Braley is French, in his early ’thirties and, if his chosen programme is indicative, someone who relishes imaginative juxtapositions of repertoire. His presentation is thoughtful: Kurtag, Haydn and Beethoven were linked almost indivisibly, applause not on Braley’s agenda. After two pieces (barely five minutes) from ’Games’, Gyorgy Kurtag’s aphoristic studies of notational self-denial, the Haydn came as something of an expressional shock; in fact, both composers share an economy of material.

Braley compelled attention with his focus on Kurtag’s silences as much as the notes themselves, duly intimating that touch, sonority and ambience are priorities in his thinking. Yet, in Haydn, his approach was uncoloured, finding a link to Bach, and his severe approach was overdone. Leaving out the repeats concentrated Haydn’s design, though a lack of wit, even allowing these variations are among Haydn’s most serious utterances, attenuated Braley’s austerity; even the passionate climax failed to ignite.

Braley’s somewhat mechanical, marionette-like movements belie his svelte touch and sense of poetry; I was occasionally reminded of Radu Lupu. His Beethoven had an Impressionistic input, the piano keys barely stroked at times but always with intent; though Braley can be as forceful and declamatory as anyone when he wants. If Op.110 lacked a sense of improvisation and Braley’s well-ordered approach inhibited the scherzo’s quirkiness, his solemn, refulgent ’Adagio’ dug deep into Beethoven’s consciousness – Claudio Arrau invoked – and he built the finale’s fugue with authority; a shame then that the ’sunrise’ coda seemed tacked-on rather than organic. Good though to hear a personal touch (literally) brought to this music.

After the hermetically-sealed first half, Braley seeming to be of monastic persuasion, the second half consisted of some outstanding Debussy, which Braley verbally introduced to the audience with humour and charm. Clinical and chiselled, Braley found a balance between musical suggestion and harmonic clarity that, when distilled by a pianist of unlimited resources of colour and dynamics, ensured that each note had infinitesimal expressive power. ’Des pas sur la neige’ was revealed with an appropriately ’cold’ beauty of tone; complemented by Braley’s depth of feeling this has haunted me (Celibidache, a decent pianist, might have played it like this). Braley caught the dry, dusty Spanish atmosphere of ’La Puerta del Vino’ ideally; ’General Lavine-eccentric’ was persuasively laconic.

In his short introduction, Braley suggested that the harmonies of ’Feuilles mortes’ anticipated Bill Evans by forty years. Braley ended his six-Prelude selection by segueing ’dead leaves’ with Gershwin. Rhapsody in Blue, the composer’s solo arrangement, was given a ’classical’ reading, a tad staid I suppose. Braley’s European viewpoint took Rhapsody away from Manhattan with articulacy and style; relaxed, with affection and, seemingly, with Ferde Grofe’s orchestrations (for Paul Whiteman’s band and, then, symphony orchestra) in mind – an allusion of muted trumpet or a saxophone section was evident in Braley’s varied hues. For encores, he brought rhythmic acumen to a little something from ’The Gershwin Songbook’, adding another Debussy Prelude for good measure.

I am very keen to hear Braley again; he must record Debussy’s Preludes. Two pieces I would be interested to hear him tackle – Liszt’s B minor sonata and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit … no applause between them!

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