Schubert at The Red Hedgehog

Allegretto in C minor, D915
Drei Klavierstücke, D946
Sonata in B flat, D960

James Lisney (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 17 December, 2006
Venue: The Red Hedgehog, Highgate, London N6

James Lisney is imposing when standing by the piano – tall, soft-voiced, broadly-built and fair-haired. He introduced his programme engagingly, arousing my interest before he sat down to play.

The Allegretto in C minor prompted a musing upon an appropriate speed for the instruction ‘allegretto’. Lisney settled for pressing forward without hurry – this was music relaxed and at ease with itself. Thus, a gentle rondo opened the recital, its forward flow and robust, rounded melody characteristic of its composer at his most genial. It also introduced us to Lisney as a Schubert-player – attentive and sinuous, graceful and fluid, sensitive and unostentatiously firm.

The three Piano Pieces – sometimes termed Impromptus – were apparently attended to by Brahms before their first publication. They show a development of Schubert’s style at this late stage in his life, and gave Lisney an opportunity for revealing Schubert as a fascinating companion with many sides to his nature: the melody that is a solid, slightly lumpen chorded pronouncement; the long, sinuous, winding melody that (if our luck holds) will never end and the darkly rumbling reminder of the powers of darkness; finally, a rumbustuous and jolly prance, discharged high spirits and a melody from a forgotten opera.

I had the impression of Lisney clearing a path that enabled Schubert to speak – responding alertly to the style in which Schubert wished to express himself at that juncture and at a speed that enabled him to articulate himself very well. This was a very natural-sounding performance – at the service of the composer. Any flashing pyrotechnics were by-the-by.

The test was the B flat sonata. There is a pianist (who shall remain anonymous) who will not repeat the first movement’s exposition. Lisney showed why it should be played; the sequence (i.e. exposition and repeat) was transcendental.

The great theme began in a flow of spontaneous evolution, each phrase taking its individual breath. Bubbles kept plopping conversationally through a pool’s surface. This flow of only partially-formulated pronouncements seemed unaware of connecting to anything before or to come. An earth tremor rumbled. Then the bubbling resumed. Suddenly and momentarily, the warning re-appeared, as a trill in the bass.

Was this ominous – did it herald darkening change? No: we returned to evolutionary momentum, but with a major difference. The phrases, now joined up, comprised one long glorious, sinuous, indestructible melody – a melody of life and survival, which flowed over and into any cracks in the earth’s surface that further tremors might make. We were equipped, now, to venture into the unknown.

I am not, of course, suggesting that Lisney formulated this story. I am suggesting, however, that the fineness and rarity of his phrasing, colouring and shading while playing the music evoked in me feelings of rapture and awe that I can only express in this way.

Through the rest of this sonata, Lisney’s skilled and sympathetic execution was impeccable, glowingly matching the elevation of its opening, including its vital reminders of the omnipresence of darkness. This was Schubert-playing to treasure.

  • The Red Hedgehog
  • The Red Hedgehog is situated at 255-257 Archway Road, Highgate, London, N6 5BS
  • Box Office: 020 8348 5050

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