Lilya Zilberstein at Wigmore Hall [Brahms & Rachmaninov]

Three Intermezzos, Op.117
Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op.35
Thirteen Preludes, Op.32

Lilya Zilberstein (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 7 June, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Billed as the inaugural gala concert for the Keyboard Trust Prizewinner’s Series, this recital brought the welcome opportunity to re-acquaint with Lilya Zilberstein who first emerged with great éclat in the late 1980s when she recorded Rachmaninov’s Second and Third Piano Concertos for Deutsche Grammophon with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. A passionate chamber musician and devoted teacher, Zilberstein now regularly partners Martha Argerich in piano duos and has also been an enthusiastic supporter of the Keyboard Trust (which numbers Abbado and Alfred Brendel amongst its Trustees) since its early days, a charity that aims to bring talented young pianists before an international public.

The Janus-like combination of late and early Brahms worked surprisingly well, Brahms at his most introspectively autumnal and melancholic succeeded by Brahms the young lion flexing his keyboard muscles with his Paganini Variations. For all the beauty of sound – deep and chocolate brown – Zilberstein’s approach to the three Intermezzos veered toward the relaxed and reverential. Although there was a fine inner glow to their central sections, Zilberstein’s tempos in both outer pieces militated against any forward momentum. Rather more successful was the B flat minor Intermezzo, marked Andante non troppo e con molto espressione; this his was deeply considered and reflective.

The Paganini Variations – divided into two Books, Zilberstein opting to play the Theme again before Book II – represents Brahms’s piano-writing at its most intransigent and demanding with cascades of thirds and sixths needed to be taken at speed, a staple for the virtuoso pianist. (Liszt-pupil Emil von Sauer edited Peters Edition’s publication of the score.) Zilberstein made light of the many technical demands but only intermittently penetrated to its musical core; at her best in the gently confiding and graceful Variations. Elsewhere she made too little distinction between straight forte and sf with the consequence that many of the louder sections were clangourous. It would be particularly interesting to hear this music performed on a piano contemporaneous with the music, one with a lighter action (such as Michelangeli used for his recording of Brahms’s Opus 10 Ballades and Daniel Grimwood for his Liszt).

Rachmaninov’s Opus 32 Preludes formed the second half of Zilberstein’s recital. There is a case to be made for mixing and matching from this and the Opus 23 sets of Preludes. Otherwise the problem is that, although the Preludes may have been published as two sets, unless one is a supreme artist, able to characterise and differentiate each individual piece, there is a tendency that the sum will inevitably amount to less than the parts.

Zilberstein attacked the three initial Preludes – even the lilting Allegretto second – with a degree of heft that initially did not bode well. Fortunately matters improved greatly, Rachmaninov’s full melancholy finally emerging in the richly characterised Fourth and Fifth (the latter often used as an encore with its rippling, almost Fauré-like accompaniment). Best of all were the Tenth’s tolling climax and the penultimate G sharp minor Prelude, also famous as an encore, whose climax had a resonant amplitude far beyond that achieved by most non-Russian pianists. There was a single unannounced encore, more Rachmaninov at his most elegiac, elegantly voiced.

  • The next UK concert in the Prizewinner’s series is in Wigmore Hall in March 2010 with Alexander Romanovsky (a pupil of Dmitri Alexeev)

  • Wigmore Hall

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