Nelson Goerner plays Liszt at Wigmore Hall

Ballade No.2 in B minor
Quatre valses oubliées – Nos.1 & 2
Bagatelle sans tonalité
Mephisto Waltz No.1
Piano Sonata in B minor

Nelson Goerner (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 27 September, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Even in this year of exhaustive celebrations around the bicentenary of Liszt’s birth, this recital by the Argentinean pianist Nelson Goerner was in a class of its own, a truly life-enhancing combination of immense but non-flamboyant virtuosity, integrity of musicianship and interpretation and with an immediacy that forged an electrifying connection with the audience – a rare instance of performer, music and instrument, the medium and the message, all coiling round each other like the DNA of a superior life-form.

Nelson GoernerGoerner’s programme took no hostages. The second Ballade is Liszt at his most epic and rhetorical, and Goerner harnessed its power as a launching-pad for a heroic display of entirely apt fireworks, a celebration of Liszt’s public style delivered with great flair and brilliance, and with a natural grasp of romantic piano technique that never sounded mannered or merely bombastic. Under Goerner’s hands, the trademark low keyboard rumblings of the opening anticipated something really large-scale, the roulades of broken octaves were awe-inspiring, and the accumulative power of the big tune was achieved with effortless command.

No less virtuosic but on a smaller canvas, the two Valses oubliées could not have been further removed from the genre of salon pieces – it must have been a pretty eccentric salon, and Goerner clearly relished their gnomic, anarchic character, expressed through dazzling playing that never lost touch with how distracted and plain odd these pieces are. Goerner used the elliptical Bagatelle sans tonalité, composed right at the end of Liszt’s life and only discovered in 1956, as a mischievous curtain-raiser to the Mephisto Waltz. The latter was breathtakingly devilish, played by Goerner with a relish for its fiendish imagery and sense of danger, and with that sort of gleeful security that takes terrific risks, especially of tempo.

By contrast, the B minor Sonata was deadly serious, played with a total understanding of its agenda. Its three linked sections flowed inexorably into each other, with a faultless approach to the work’s overall structure. Just occasionally, in the first section, Goerner’s generally quick tempos might have given him less room to manoeuvre, but there was no doubt of the extent to which he was inside the music – and for such huge and resonant piano writing, Goerner’s playing was admirably clear and articulated – you could hear everything. The way in which the big chordal theme gathers in stature and character was just one of the elements of a compelling performance.

You might think that a figure as slight as Goerner couldn’t produce such a big sound and playing of such power, and with a stillness that confirms a direct link between head, heart and keyboard. Just once, I think at the first sounding of the Sonata’s all-important theme, Goerner gave an involuntary, emotional gesture of the head that gave some idea of what the music was doing to him, and which seemed to clinch the colossal reach of his performance. He is a phenomenal musician. His first encore, the second of Chopin’s Opus 27 Nocturnes, provided a cooling, enclosed retreat, followed by the last of the 24 Preludes and the slow movement from Schubert’s 1825 A major Sonata.

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