Juan Peréz Floristán plays Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven

24 Preludes, Op.28
Années de pèlerinage (Deuxième année – Italie) S161 – 1. Sposalizio; 2. Il Penseroso
Wagner, transc. Liszt
Isoldes Liebestod
Piano Sonata in F-minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)

Juan Peréz Floristán (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 8 October, 2022
Venue: St John’s Smith Square, London

In the feverish piano world, the 29-year-old Juan Peréz Floristán walks tall. He won the Santander competition in 2015 and was the Arthur Rubinstein gold medallist last year. In the UK, he stepped in for a Concerto appearance at the Proms in 2019, and he has had solo and chamber music appearances at the Wigmore Hall. Like many musicians, he and his career had to take cover during the pandemic (at his home city Seville), but since then he has been busy touring. A quick glance at his website proves him to be formidably articulate, with strong opinions firmly held, and he has a wide range of extra-musical interests.

This well-attended St John’s Smith Square recital was presumably part of his Rubinstein prize package, but I did wonder why it didn’t seem more of an occasion, especially for a young pianist whose reputation precedes him, and with good reason. His teachers have included Elisabeth Leonskaja, and his playing exudes insight, imagination, the longer view – all those attributes impossible to fake, not to mention a powerful connection with his audience. I only parted company with him over his long introductions to his programme, if only because they were fitfully audible, making it a relief when he sat down to play Chopin’s 24 Preludes, in which he was completely convincing.

Some players barge into No.1’s Agitato too literally. Floristán was right to present it more as a state of mind, and his approach went on to prove how robust these short pieces can be and how as a sequence they imply their own agenda, especially when leavened by finely graded tone and colour, a touch that balances volume and weight to great effect, and a lovely ambiguity between lingering and rubato. The occasional rhapsodic spread and delay between hands recalled an older and more aristocratic style – Rubinstein came to mind – and Floristán wore it well, without a trace of self-consciousness. There was nobility, poetry, an unfussy sense of pace, and beautiful detail in the rustling accompaniments, and however veiled and quiet the music, his sound had substance and vitality – everything you could want in Chopin. Then for some reason, after forty minutes or so of playing of a very high calibre, there was barely enough applause for him to get off stage, let alone come back again to take another bow. Incidentally, the programme note included Hans von Bülow’s descriptive titles for each Prelude, none of which, apart from historical interest, do anything to enhance our understanding.

Floristán’s playing in the Liszt pieces succinctly drew attention to the composer’s explanatory rhetoric compared with Chopin’s more oblique powers of implication, almost but not quite extrovert against introvert. In Sposalizio, in which Liszt evokes the mysticism of the Virgin Mary’s marriage to Joseph, Floristán seamlessly recreated the composer’s heady mix of ecstasy erotic and spiritual, delivering the increasingly rapturous revelation and then slowly withdrawing it, in retreat from a fortissimo the power of which made you gasp. There was a similar control of sonority and size in a marvelous account of the Liebestod transcription, in which Floristán reproduced with canny accuracy the way Liszt reimagines on the piano the effect of an orchestra without imitating it.

He then gave a thrilling performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata, unequivocally romantic and impetuous, starting in stealth and opening out into impressive urgency – interestingly, the Appassionata is the first big Beethoven Sonata with a first movement in sonata form that doesn’t have an exposition repeat, a factor that suited Floristán’s well-honed dramatic sense. And, again, the clean fluency and unshowy virtuosity of his playing left a deep impression. There was a partial and perfunctory ovation and that was that.No encores to cap a great recital that had been marred by mobiles going off, people dropping things, someone near me who I think was recording the event. Floristán was playing a Yamaha concert grand, which complemented his soft power. Rubinstein, whose name defines the competition, was a Steinway man.

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