Harrods International Piano Series 2001/2002 – 17th March

Drei Klavierstucke, D946
Davidsbundlertanze, Op.6
Sonata No.3 in F minor, Op.5

Mihaela Ursuleasa (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 17 March, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Without the biographical notes supplied, I would not have believed that Mihaela Ursuleasa was only twenty-three.Both in security of technique and in self-assurance of interpretation, she gave the impression of being a far more mature artist. She never appeared remotely troubled by the technical demands of the music, even in the combative writing of the young Brahms.

Ursuleasa is the daughter of a singer, as she wished us to know from her programme note – and she chose a programme that not only demonstrated the importance of a singing line in Romantic music, but also allowed her to show off her own ability to sustain one through complex textures.

Ursuleasa was sure throughout of what she wanted to do with the music, and never more so than at the very start.The opening of D946/1 was well thought-out and confident, the contrast with the quirky, almost sinister trio-section especially well done.The other two pieces were slightly less impressive – the heavily contrasted episodes in No.2 making for interest of detail, but at the cost of seeming disjointed. No.3 was paler in comparison.

Schumann is almost always hard to interpret. He did not make a virtue out of consistency; without sleight-of-hand which, ironically, Ursuleasa’s fidelity to the music failed to have, any performance risks seeming uneven. Although very fine, Ursuleasa did not have quite the vision or strength of character that Davidsbundlertanze ideally demands. There was no doubt that the sections marked ’Einfach’ (simple) were the most successful in their artlessness and their pearly legato line. Elsewhere, Ursuleasa could seem too studied, notably in the ’humor’ of No.12, the scattered ’hanebuchen’ of No.3, or the unnecessary restraint of the ’sehr rasch’ of No.6. I had no reservations, however, about the pianistic brilliance of Nos.8 & 9.

Ursuleasa clearly loves this repertoire. The enjoyment on her face was plain to see – she certainly succeeded in making me see these pieces with the same affection. After the interval, this contributed to a particularly winning and sympathetic interpretation of the Brahms, which seems to be coming into fashion in recitals.

I have heard this sonata twice in the last twelve months in this Harrods series – from Stephen Hough (cool, lucid clarity) and Krystian Zimerman (mystic intensity). Both performances were admirable, yet it was Ursuleasa’s freshness, her complete absence of portentousness, her refusal to take the piece too seriously that touched me the most of the three and finally directed me towards the score. Ursuleasa played simply, she wisely omitted repeats, which again made the sonata more straightforward and approachable. The first movement was not so bombastic or large-scale as to be forbidding, and both slow movements had the intimacy is her trademark. Although the ’Scherzo’ was stilted in comparison with the other movements, there was a treat at the end of the finale – Ursuleasa emerged from the warmly phrased episodes, cast off all shackles of restraint and care, and gave the closing pages with pure virtuosity. In reminding that Brahms was a writer of songs and a direct heir of Schumann, Ursuleasa, at the last, allowed us to see the raw intensity of his youthful passion.

The Chopin Berceuse encore served to reinforce the impression of Ursuleasa – beauty of tone, overriding affection, lacking only the last degree of magic, but impeccable in technique and fidelity of conception.

In her programme note, Ursuleasa wrote feelingly of being influenced by her compatriot Radu Lupu. Although she is young, Ursuleasa shares with Lupu the deep respect, and the aspiration to poetry possessed by the great Romanian pianists, of whom Lipatti and Haskil are the brightest luminaries.

Ursuleasa also shared this season’s billing with her exact contemporary Valentina Igoshina, and it is natural to compare the two, especially as both played Romantic programmes. Of the two, Igoshina plays in a more dangerous, glamorous fashion; Ursuleasa, though personal, is more restrained. Both have excellent techniques, but whereas Igoshina’s is something glittering, impressive, capable of the occasional miracle, Ursuleasa’s is already sufficiently complete.

It may be far from fanciful to set each of these pianists in her own national tradition – the Russians of whom Igoshina reminds, Richter, Gilels and Sokolov, left or leave a fiercely individual, heroic stamp on their performances. The Romanians mentioned above, virtuosi each, have always been proud to be servants to the music – Haskil a miracle of ego-less playing. So it is with their successors.

  • The next Harrods recital is given by Marc-André Hamelin on Thursday, 11 April, at 7.45 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall – Schumann, Alkan and Hamelin.
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201 www.rfh.org.uk
  • Read a review of Valentina Igoshina here.

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