Piano Recital: Alexander Ullman
Liszt / Tchaikovsky / Stravinsky

Lukaskirche, Lucerne, 2019-11-22

4.5-star rating

2019-11-30 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

About the Concert

I have not attended much of this year’s Lucerne Piano Festival, even though it apparently was the last one of its kind. Apart from the tickets costs for regular concerts in the KKL and the travel time, etc., the one reason for my limited attendance may be the same that probably caused the organizers to discontinue the Lucerne Piano Festival: too many concerts!

So, this year, I have merely attended three “Debut Series” recitals in Lucerne’s Lukaskirche—and this was the last one of the three (see my other reports for the recitals on 2019-11-20 and on 2019-11-21).

Setting, etc.

The first one of the Debut series Recitals had been sold out, the second one had attracted a slightly smaller audience. This recital sold well, but still (sadly and inappropriately, as we shall see) had the smallest audience among the three in the series.

I had a seat in the right-hand side block in the nave—the right-most seat in row #9. The acoustics are good in that position, even though not directly in the focus (projection line) of the Steinway D-274 concert grand. And also the visibility was just OK: as I was mostly either scribbling notes or reading the score on my iPad, it was enough to be able occasionally to glean at the artist through the people: I could observe the artist’s pedaling, if and where I wanted to.


The Artist

The artist in this recital was the British pianist Alexander Ullman (*1991). Prior to this recital, I had already encountered this artist in various chamber music formations, in the context of the 2018 Festival Academy Budapest. From these performances, my expectations in this recital were fairly high.


Program


Concert & Review

The artist looked inconspicuous in his suit, modest and factual in his appearance, as he entered the podium and accepted the opening applause. Once he sat at the instrument, however, he performed with lively body movements, theatrical arm gestures. Some might claim that excess gestures are irritating—I personally don’t mind, as long as the music, the performance is “right”. There was no grimacing or otherwise excessive facial mimics—though, the artist kept an open facial expression. Alexander Ullman was frequently letting his eyes wander around: unconsciously looking away from the keyboard, often into the height of the nave, as he was looking for the score somewhere at the ceiling.

Liszt: Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) wrote his cycle of 10 piano pieces Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173, in 1847. It appeared in print in 1853. The pieces are inspired by the poetry of Alphonse de Lamartine (1790 – 1869). Alexander Ullman chose three of the movements, among them the most popular one, No.7, “Funérailles“:

  1. Invocation
  2. Ave Maria
  3. Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude
  4. Pensée des morts (“In Memory of the Dead”)
  5. Pater Noster
  6. Hymne de l’enfant à son réveil
  7. Funérailles
  8. Miserere, d’après Palestrina
  9. (Andante lagrimoso)
  10. Cantique d’amour

The Performance

3. Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude

A beautiful cantilena in the left hand (cantando sempre), a seemingly endless melody which Alexander Ullman made sing intensely. It’s a long recitativo accompagnato of sorts, with a calm, murmuring, discreet quaver accompaniment in the right hand (l’accompagnamento sempre piano e armonioso—indeed!). Distinct, poignant agogics / rubato supported the “language” in the cantilena: I really liked these ritenuti at key notes. The artist formed broad dynamic arches, and at the climax, the flow even momentarily seemed to stop, building tension for the next phrase—excellent, and definitely harmonious!

The melody of course retained all its intensity, as it moved into the descant, then started appearing in other voices, building up to a discourse. It seemed to intensify, as if more and more thoughts were emerging from the composer’s mind—the music picked up momentum and intensity, built up to a broad (I’m tempted to say: glorious) climax, after which (in the Andante) Liszt’s “protagonist” seemed exhausted, finally, the music almost appeared to die. Of course, it didn’t. When the piece resumed at the Tempo I, the expression felt more spiritual, without losing its narrative character, finally building up to a second, broad fff climax.

I found Alexander Ullman’s performance and interpretation to be masterful: subtle in dynamics (especially in the pp) and expression, excellent in the singing tone, in shaping the long, big arches, and in never losing focus and tension, up to the final, very long fermata!
★★★★½

7. Funérailles

A somber, dark beginning, with pounding tones deep in the bass (I wished for an even bigger instrument!)—not a funeral march (yet), but the tolling of the death bell. Only when the bass modulates up, it turns into the pace of a slow, funeral march, turning bigger and more theatrical—the illustration of a great human tragedy. Even though Alexander Ullman sometimes seemed to look into a big void, he never lost the focus and stayed truthful to the markedly punctuated rhythms.

A fresh start after a fff climax and a fermata (lunga pausa) led to a more “down to earth” funeral march, with a lamenting cantilena in the bass. The funeral ceremony seemed to drag along painfully. Though, of course, the music, the cantilenas remained intense and very expressive at all times. The performance: atmospheric, simple, with always carefully balanced dynamics. Alexander Ullman exploited the sonority of the instrument up to the very limit when the melody reached another climax in fff octaves in the descant.

A third segment begins with motoric staccato quaver triplets in the bass, and when the right hand sets in with a slow, punctuated rhythm, the music seems to be inspired by Chopin’s famous Polonaise in A♭ major, op.53 (indeed, some see this piece as a tribute to Chopin, who died just before this was completed). And of course, it gradually built up to another, very effectful, grandiose climax, ending in towering, breathtaking triple-octave runs: it wasn’t a surprise that Alexander Ullman occasionally was stomping with his (right) pedal foot! And it also became obvious why Funérailles is the most popular movement among the ten in the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses.
★★★★

10. Cantique d’amour

Alexander Ullman was not only excellent at highlighting, but also at shaping the melody in the center, among the ascending waves of the accompaniment. Masterful dynamics control, both in internal balance, but also in shaping the long build-ups—a scenic aria with subtle accompaniment, with so much tension: enthralling, fascinating!
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Tchaikovsky: Suite from the ballet “The Nutcracker”, op.71a

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) completed his ballet “The Nutcracker” 1892. He also wrote a 20-minute suite from that music. That suite was far more successful, and it has remained popular to this day. The popularity of the suite, and likely also the music itself, motivated Mikhail Pletnev (*1957) to transcribe selected parts of the suite into a Concert Suite for solo piano.

  1. March — MarcheTempo di marcia viva
  2. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy — Danse de la Fée DragéeAndante non troppo
  3. Tarantella
  4. Intermezzo (Journey through the Snow)
  5. Russian Trepak — Danse russe TrepakTempo di Trepak, molto vivace
  6. Chinese Dance — Danse chinoiseAllegro moderato
  7. Andante maestoso (Pas de Deux)

The Performance

I. March — MarcheTempo di marcia viva

Brilliant, not just technically (such as in the precise, rapid tone repetitions in the middle part), but also in how Alexander Ullman was able to differentiate the colors of the different instrument groups in the orchestra.
★★★★½

II. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy — Danse de la Fée DragéeAndante non troppo

The artist seemed to try maintaining clarity and precision down to small note values: indeed technically excellent. However, this made some of the descending demisemiquaver motifs (from the bass clarinet voice) sound slightly heavy. This may have been the pianist’s intent, though, and it was maybe just my memory from orchestral performances which made me expect a slicker motif?
★★★★

III. Tarantella

If this momentarily sounded slightly heave (even a tad clumsy), then it wasn’t the pianist’s fault: his playing was technically excellent. Rather, it was almost certainly the arranger, Mikhail Pletnev, who was aiming (too) high, trying to squeeze “too much orchestra” into a piano score. The result seems to reach the technical boundaries of piano playing, of what two hands and ten fingers can achieve.
★★★★

IV. Intermezzo (Journey through the Snow)

Beautiful, serene singing with a gentle, murmuring accompaniment. The singing gradually grew in expression and emotion—one could almost literally hear the intense string voices in a large orchestra, leading into a glorious, broad and intense climax. It’s impossible not to be fascinated by the beauty of Tchaikovsky’s melodic invention!
★★★★½

V. Russian Trepak — Danse russe TrepakTempo di Trepak, molto vivace

Fast, virtuosic, excellent in the drive, the momentum! Alexander Ullman didn’t spare himself from the challenge of a tempo that reached the limits of the piano mechanics.
★★★★

VI. Chinese Dance — Danse chinoiseAllegro moderato

Capricious, atmospheric and playful, both the music, as well as the performance!
★★★★½

VII. Andante maestoso (Pas de Deux)

Another, beautiful melodic inventions, with strong resemblance to moments in the composer’s symphonies—certainly in the breadth, the grandeur, the emphatic, very slightly melancholic tone. So many beautiful cantilenas, slowly building up to a glorious, grandiose climax and a transfigured ending: orchestral piano in the best sense of the word, brilliant playing, enthralling, fascinating!

The audience remained in silence after the performance, stunned—until Alexander Ullman’s almost embarrassed gesture seemed to hint “Sorry, that was the end!”…
★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Stravinsky: Suite “L’oiseau de feu

1910, Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) wrote his Ballet “L’oiseau de feu” (“The Firebird”) for the series of Ballets Russes that Sergei Diaghilew (1872 – 1929) was directing in Paris. This was the beginning of a very fruitful cooperation between Stravinsky and Diaghilev. And it led to Stravinsky’s break-through as a composer.

The composer created a piano score for the entire ballet (sometimes referred to as Stravinsky’s “piano version” of the ballet). However, this was not meant for performance in concert halls, but merely served as a basis for the correpetition in rehearsals with the corps de ballet. In the absence of a “proper” concert version for piano, the Italian pianist and piano teacher Guido Agosti (1901 – 1989) created concert transcriptions (for solo piano) from three of the movements of Stravinsky’s Suite “L’oiseau de feu“:

  1. Dance infernale du roi Kastchei
  2. Berceuse
  3. Finale

I have previously written about a CD recording, as well as a concert performance of this transcription.

The Performance

2. Dance infernale du roi Kastchei

Impressive, masterful, brilliant playing and performance!

The one aspect in which I might add a nit-picking remark: Alexander Ullman seemed to focus on technical brilliance, on execution, clarity and flow (though, in the middle, there was a short period where he seemed to lose momentum). Compared to other performances (in particular, my “Stravinsky hero”—go, figure!), the interpretation here seemed to lack some extra “inner life”, expression, vivacity (Russian soul?): it’s still music for a ballet…
★★★★

6. Berceuse

Here, however, I concede that in my view, a better, more intense and touching performance is hardly imaginable: perfect in the internal balance (melody vs. accompaniment), the permanent, gentle rhythmic swaying, the amazing subtlety in the dynamics, down to ppp(pp)…
★★★★★

7. Finale

Also here: extreme subtlety in the tremulating accompaniment, virtually perfect dynamic control, in the build-up to the majestic climax and its transfiguration to the final “scene”, ending in a big drum roll. Congratulations to the artist! The standing ovation was definitely well-deserved!
★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


Encore — Liszt: Grandes études de Paganini, S.141 — Étude No.6 in A minor

Whoever was expecting a calm, lyrical encore after all the power-draining virtuosity was in for a surprise! Alexander Ullman didn’t announce his encore, as the theme is all-too well-known. He returned to Franz Liszt, performing the Étude No.6 in A minor from the Grandes études de Paganini, S.141. The theme in Etude No.6 is from the Capriccio No.24 in A minor, from the 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, op.1, by Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840). The study itself is a set of 11 variations:

  • Theme: Quasi Presto, a capriccio
  • Var.I: leggieramente / ben marcato
  • Var.II: marcato, con agitazione
  • Var.III: energico
  • Var.IV: delicatamente / vivacissimo
  • Var.V: leggiero / marcato
  • Var.VI: con brio
  • Var.VII;: quasi Flauto / scherzando / quasi Fagotto
  • Var.VIII: Animato
  • Var.IX: staccato (quasi pizzicato)
  • Var.X: Più moderato
  • Var.XI: con brio

I have very little to add here about Alexander Ullman’s playing: fast, very virtuosic, seemingly effortless in the huge technical challenges, extremely subtle in dynamics—and no, this was by no means a rushed (let alone sloppy) “last dance”!!!


Conclusions

A real pity that the Lucerne Piano Festival and its Debut Series are coming to an end! To me, the Debut Series recitals were almost always more interesting than the main festival concerts in the KKL (with well-proven artists and often a mainstream repertoire). If there was any need to demonstrate that young, upcoming artists can produce recitals that are at least as interesting and exciting: this concert (and the one by Claire Huangci on 2019-11-20) was the perfect proof for this. And these concerts demonstrated how much the music community is losing with the Lucerne Piano Festival.


Addendum: A CD with the Artist

I’m adding this just for reference—I haven’t listened to that recording so far. However, based on the outcome of the recital, I can certainly recommend this CD!

Alexander Ullman performing Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky; CD cover

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: the Nutcracker Suite, op.71a (arr. Pletnev)
Sergei Prokofiev: Six Pieces from Cinderella, op.102
Igor Stravinsky: 3 Mouvements de Pétrouchka; The Firebird Suite (arr. Agosti)

Alexander Ullman, piano

Rubicon RCD1029 (CD, ℗ / © 2019)

Alexander Ullman performing Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky; CD, EAN-13 barcode
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