Piano Recital: Federico Colli
Scarlatti / Bach-Busoni / Mussorgsky
Lukaskirche, Lucerne, 2018-11-23
In this year’s Lucerne Piano Festival, this was the last of three Debut Series recitals in Lucerne’s Lukaskirche that I attended. For once, my wife and I had very central seats, in row #2 of the middle block in the nave. The seats are not numbered in these recitals: one just orders a place in a given row and block, and then, if you are willing to wait some 15 – 20 minutes before the doors open (30 minutes prior to start), one can still select the best place in the given row & block, even if the concert is close to being sold out, such as this one. It was the best-sold of the three Debut Series recitals. So, sight and acoustics were excellent, with the Steinway D-274 right in front of us.
The Italian pianist Federico Colli (*1988, see also Wikipedia) was born in Brescia. He received his education in piano playing first in his home town, then at the Conservatorio di Milano, at the Imola International Piano Academy and at the Mozarteum Salzburg. His main teachers at these institutions were Sergio Marengoni (*1940), Konstantin Bogino (*1950), Boris Petrushansky (*1949), and Pavel Gililov (*1950, see also Wikipedia).
Federico Colli started drawing attention in 2011 when he won the first prize at the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg. In 2012, he further won the First Prize and the Gold Medal “Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi” at the Leeds International Piano Competition. These two prizes allowed the artist to start an international career as concert pianist. Just this November, Federico Colli had made his debut at London’s Wigmore Hall, and after this recital, he went on to give solo recitals in the U.S., and later in Saint Petersburg.
For this Debut Recital in Lucerne, Federico Colli presented works by three composers, and one encore:
- Domenico Scarlatti: 8 Keyboard Sonatas
- Busoni / Bach: Transcription of the Chaconne from Partita No.2 for Violin solo in D minor, BWV 1004 / BV B 24
- Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Scarlatti: 8 Keyboard Sonatas
Federico Colli started his recital with a selection of eight out of the over 550 Keyboard Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757):
- K.1 in D minor: Allegro
- K.9 in D minor: Allegro
- K.19 in F minor: Allegro
- K.32 in D minor: Aria
- K.39 in A major: Allegro
- K.69 in F minor
- K.450 in G minor: Allegrissimo
- K.492 in D major: Presto
The program announcement listed these sonatas in the sequence K.19 — K.450 — K.492 — K.69 — K.32 — K.9 — K.1 — K.39. However, in the performance, this wasn’t exactly what we heard. The piece after the slow D minor sonata K.32 clearly wasn’t in D minor (as K.9). Indeed, Federico Colli secretly substituted the sonata K.430 (D major) for the sonata K.9 in D minor. The final sequence looked as follows:
- K.19 in F minor: Allegro
- K.450 in G minor: Allegrissimo
- K.492 in D major: Presto
- K.69 in F minor
- K.32 in D minor: Aria
- K.430 in D major: Non presto, ma a tempo di ballo
- K.1 in D minor: Allegro
- K.39 in A major: Allegro
Superficially, it looked as if Colli surrounded two slow(er) sonatas by six faster ones, yielding an overall pattern fast—slow—fast. The reality turned out somewhat differently, though.
Scarlatti on the Concert Grand
I did not expect a “historically correct” performance—the instrument alone already precluded this. Numerous pianists such as Vladimir Horowitz (1903 – 1989) have been performing Scarlatti on the modern piano with success. In fact, just three days prior to this recital, on 2018-11-20, I witnessed the American pianist Claire Huangci (*1990) in Zurich, opening her recital with a set of four sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. And she had already done that in her earlier recital on 2015-02-10, then with 7 sonatas.
I think that Scarlatti’s music is somewhat less bound to the articulation & the sound a specific keyboard instrument than that of other baroque composers. Or, at least, on the modern piano, artists are able to produce music through which one can still recognize the composer and his original compositions, music that still makes sense to the “baroque ear”. In my view, this requires limited use of dynamics, staying close to the composer’s tempo annotation, omitting excess romanticism, and at least an attempt to follow baroque practice in articulation and ornamentation.
Sonata K.19 in F minor: Allegro
Already the first of the sonatas was exemplary for all pieces in this first section: extremely expressive and exceedingly romantic. Colli was ignoring how this music sounds on historic instruments, he rather used it as a tool to present his highly subjective, expressive view. The tempo was measured, Adagio rather than Allegro, i.e., ignoring the composer’s annotation. The articulation often bordered on mannerism, with the countless arpeggiandi, the soft tone—the strong ritardando and diminuendo in the final bars alone clearly were post-classic, nothing like baroque!
Sure, Colli’s control of touch and dynamics (e.g., how he differentiated the hands, the voices) was astounding. But already here, the dynamic width exceeded anything that Scarlatti could even dream of. The early sonatas such as this one were definitely written for the harpsichord!
Sonata K.450 in G minor: Allegrissimo
Scarlatti’s annotation is Allegrissimo, i.e., “most joyful”. Well, Colli turned this into a playfully romantic—excessively romantic—piece. It felt like a peacefully flowing Andante, far from Allegrissimo. Actually, the tempo wasn’t that much of, but because here, the focus was on the base beat in the left hand, while the ornaments in the top voice were—just that. On the harpsichord, the focus shifts onto the lively ornamented top voice—hence Allegrissimo.
Of course, Colli played again with very differentiated dynamics—a highly subjective modern concert grand performance at its extreme, with extravagantly expressive exaggerations par excellence. In contrast to the first sonata, this one ended in a big crescendo gesture.
Sonata K.492 in D major: Presto
This now was definitely Presto—typical for any performance on a modern grand, I would say. And Colli has more than enough technical prowess to master the score also at a fast pace. But again, there was plenty of exaggeration: extreme agogics (such as sudden ritenuti) hindered the flow, on the other hand, the fast scales turned into blurred glissandi. In repeats, Colli added additional ornaments—moderately baroque in style, often blurred, given Colli’s tempo. And also here, the dynamics were extremely differentiated—and extreme in contrasts and breadth. Colli, not Scarlatti.
Sonata K.69 in F minor
K.69 followed attacca—and as extreme contrast. The tempo was OK (what is tempo ordinario, anyway?), the extreme dynamics less so, in my view. Colli was spanning the dynamics from a powerful f with rolling bass arpeggios down to the softest, whispered tones, where also the articulation turned extremely mellow. Artful, yes, but…
Sonata K.32 in D minor: Aria
Aria is barely a tempo annotation, except that it implies a melody, cantabile, etc., as in an aria. This took the softness in K.69 even further, often down to pppp, with extreme rubato: almost Chopin, not Scarlatti! And the tempo pretty much precluded a singable melody line: Lento, Adagissimo…
Sonata K.430 in D major: Non presto, ma a tempo di ballo
Here came the substitute—a late sonata that may be seen as “closer to the fortepiano” than Scarlatti’s early essercizi. Federico Colli played this as a classic Scherzo, with “curly flow”, joking accents and ritenuti. Even though it was again exaggerated (self-presentation or interpretation?), I found this sonata the best / most acceptable in the set.
Sonata K.1 in D minor: Allegro
With K.1 we seemed to have moved into Scarlatti’s Essercizi, at last—in the beginning. However, Colli could of course not resist moving towards dynamic excesses, accelerating, adding rubato, strong accents, and a “big”, if not gross ending.
Sonata K.39 in A major: Allegro
Virtuosity unleashed! This was very impulsive, if not explosive, and very fast, to the point where many of the fast motifs appeared blurred, unclear, if not superficial. All in favor of the mere show / effect? The final, virtuosic splash in this series, a pianistic showpiece with a thundering final chord? Yes, the audience liked it…
Federico Colli obviously aimed at presenting a “big show”—not just through his somewhat extravagant / unusual dressing style, but also through his playing. He aimed at the big, theatrical musical gestures, irrespective of the composer’s original intent. Music turned into a tool for him to present his abilities, to impress the audience. Unlike others, who seem to immerse themselves into the music, the instrument, he was very much aware of the audience, as one could gather from occasional glimpses into the nave, or from how he accepted the applause. I sometimes wondered whether his facial mimics were spontaneous / subconscious, or intentional?
Of course, this should not affect the judgement of his performance. However, it was in line with the music that he presented. Music to him seems to be a tool to impress the audience. He is not so much the servant of the composer and his oeuvre, but somebody who wants to present his own, personal view.
Authentic or Original?
Of course, performances are meant to be individually shaped, subjective—within limits: if the program states that an artist presents Scarlatti, I expect something that reflects that composer’s intent. Here, the music was rather far away from the original works, to a degree where I would call it “Federico Colli’s transcription of Scarlatti’s sonatas”. As such, I would call it impressive (and certainly very entertaining)—but calling this “Sonatas by Scarlatti” is taking it a step too far. See my posting “Authenticity and Originality — Antagonists in Music Interpretation?” for further considerations & thoughts in this context.
The Partita No.2 for Violin solo in D minor, BWV 1004 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) ends with one of Bach’s most well-known movement: the famous Chaconne (Ciaccona). The popularity of this movement ranges from the 19th century to this day. A clear indication for how highly people rate this music is that numerous composers and artists have created transcriptions and arrangements. One famous transcription is for piano, left hand only, by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897).
Somewhat after Brahms (1893), the Italian composer and piano virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924) created his own Transcription of the Chaconne from Partita No.2 for Violin solo in D minor, BWV 1004 / BV B 24—one of the many pieces that he arranged for the piano. While Brahms remained relatively close to the original, Busoni of course could not resist filling chords, adding harmonies and additional voices, “blowing up” Bach’s music, into a (potential, at least) pianistic showpiece. Needless to say that this triggered Federico Colli’s interest! Undoubtedly, Busoni liked to explore big, organ-like soundscapes on the concert grand. One may debate, though, whether he did that merely or mainly to “show off”.
Already the earthly heaviness of the first chords indicated that this performance would leave nothing left of the spirit of the original for violin solo: piano pure, at the extreme. And soon, Colli was building up astounding masses of sound. These contrasted with extremes in very soft and mellow ppp, further softened by use of arpeggio. Contrasts were also highlighted with extremes in agogics and rubato. Colli ignored the idea of a Chaconne, i.e., variations on a ground, by changing to a slower pace after a climax, for a new, ppp beginning (e.g., in bar 23, or in bar 77), for the next build-up towards thundering octave doublings in the bass, or blazing scales, and the like. In the fff, Colli went up to and beyond what the Steinway D-274 would deliver.
Where Bach intensifies polyphony on the violin by using arpeggio, Busoni (and perhaps more so Colli) switched to a transfigured, ethereal ppp—just to pick up momentum for the next, theatrical build-up to an ffff climax. That ended in a long fermata, followed by the much slower, exceedingly romantic D major segment. At first, that gradually picked up volume and tempo, switched to dramatic mode in bar 148, with intermittent soft, lyrical sections (e.g., bars 153ff). Dramatic accelerandi (up to bar 177) alternated with equally dramatic broadening (towards bar 192).
The transition back to D minor (bar 209) was just as extreme as the previous one to D major. I could not resist smiling when Federico Colli lifted his index finger, momentarily pointing to the ceiling, prior to the first minor chord, as if he wanted to alert the audience about the upcoming harmonic change. As expected, the ending was grandiose, thundering, dramatic, overwhelming.
Could there possibly be a more dramatic, more excessive interpretation of this piece? Hardly, unless one moved it to a giant pipe organ, or if one added an orchestra! Leopold Stokowski (1882 – 1977) comes to mind, or Walt Disney’s film “Fantasia” (1940). My initial reaction was that “Pop has arrived in classical music”. However, I think that one should look at Busoni’s and Colli’s contributions separately. Busoni already expanded Bach’s violin soundscape dramatically—though, one could certainly think of performances of the transcription that stay closer to Bach’s original.
Federico Colli has taken this a dramatic step further, dramaticizing Busoni’s transcription to the extreme. An analogy to Einstein’s famous formula E=mc^2 came to mind: Colli = Bach * Busoni^2. In other words: Colli multiplied what Busoni added to Bach’s Chaconne by an order of magnitude. Yes, Colli’s technical prowess is astounding, his playing here was highly virtuosic, highly effective & dramatic, etc. — to me, it went a step too far.
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
In the years, 1873 and 1874, the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881) was at the height of his career, with the staging and the success of his opera “Boris Godunov“. At the same time, the sudden death of his close friend, the painter Victor Hartmann (1834 – 1873), had a deep impact on Mussorgsky. 1874, an exhibition was organized in memory of the late painter—and this inspired the composer to his piano cycle “Pictures at an Exhibition“. This describes a visit to the exhibition, where a recurring Promenade indicates the strolling from one (set of) picture(s) to the next:
- No.1 Gnomus — The Gnome
- No.2 Il vecchio castello — The Old Castle
- No.3 Tuileries — Children’s Quarrel after Games
- No.4 Bydlo — Cattle
- No.5 Ballet of Unhatched Chicks
- No.6 ‘Samuel’ Goldenberg and ‘Schmuÿle’
- No.7 Limoges, le marché (La grande nouvelle) — Limoges, The Market (The Great News)
- No.8 Catacombae (Sepulcrum romanum) & Con mortuis in lingua mortua — Catacombs (Roman Tomb) & With the Dead in Dead Language
- No.9 Избушка на курьих ножках (Баба-Яга) — The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga)
- No.10 Богатырские ворота (В стольном городе во Киеве) — The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev)
One should keep in mind that the pieces 1 – 10 are not inspired by an imagined or real scenery, but by Hartmann’s drawings and watercolors. Only the models for pieces No.5, 6, 8, 9, and 10 survived to this day.
Piano or Orchestra?
Most people will know “Pictures at an Exhibition” from the masterful arrangement for orchestra which Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) created in 1922, on commission by the conductor, composer and double-bassist Serge Koussevitzky (1874 – 1951). Going back to Mussorgsky’s original, one finds a piano score that seems much simpler than, say, Busoni’s works. Yet, it is highly effective, and very impressive in its own way. Obviously, the piano can’t compete with an orchestra in terms of colors. It rather draws on the listener’s imagination.
Promenade — Gnomus
Already with the first “Promenade” (Allegro giusto, nel modo russico, senza allegrezza, ma poco sostenuto) it seemed clear that we found ourselves in a different world. Not because this was Russian music, but because here, Federico Colli presented not so much himself, but rather the music—and he did that really well! His playing used differentiated, adequate dynamics, diligent agogics—and it lacked unnecessary keyboard thundering, excesses in dynamics and tempo.
This continued in the actual “Pictures”: the first one, Gnomus (Sempre vivo), combined segments with powerful, precise keyboard touch with subtle, diligent passages. Given his previous performances, it was clear that Colli wasn’t facing serious challenges in this score—even though there are certainly also technical difficulties in this music.
Promenade — Il vecchio castello
The subsequent “Promenade” (Moderato commodo assai e con delicatezza) stayed truthful to the annotation: we heard an extremely subtle, delicate, pensive, even intimate piece, entirely between pp and p, maybe mf. Differentiation and subtlety also in “Il vecchio castello” (Andantino molto cantabile e con dolore), retained, mysterious, imaginative!
Promenade — Tuileries — Bydlo — Promenade
Reassuring, excellent the following “Promenade” (Moderato non tanto, pesamente). The subsequent Tuileries (Allegretto non troppo, capriccioso) were really playful, volatile, erratic and unpredictable / unstable, just like kids! Bydlo (Sempre moderato, pesante): grand, heavy (but not excessively), controlled and with differentiated dynamics also in the ff, exploiting the capacity of the concert grand. Imaginative up to the ending, where the cattle (the oxcart, presumably) steadily moves out of sight. The subsequent “Promenade” (Tranquillo): pensive, very soft (pp and below), gentle, subtle!
Ballet of Unhatched Chicks — ‘Samuel’ Goldenberg and ‘Schmuÿle’
Imaginative also the bizarre “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” (Scherzino. Vivo, leggiero): unstable like the kids, but hectic, a flock of (unborn!) chicken, then (in the Trio) cuddling in the warmth of the eggshell—excellent playing! Federico Colli continued to demonstrate his talent for theatrical, imaginative playing in ‘Samuel’ Goldenberg and ‘Schmuÿle’ (Andante. Grave, energico — Andantino — Andante. Grave): pompous, presumptuous the rich Polish Jew, wordy, hectic and chatty his poor counterpart, who also seems somewhat melancholic. Virtuosic, possibly humorous the final synthesis!
Promenade — Limoges, le marché (La grande nouvelle) — Catacombs — Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua
The last of the “Promenades” is a mirror of the initial one, (again) untroubled, almost jaunty. The subsequent Limoges, le marché (La grande nouvelle) with the annotation Allegretto vivo, sempre scherzando exhibited technical excellent, playing, agile, especially in the unexpected accents. Without any interruptioon, the final accelerando “fell into” the Catacombs (Largo): static, pondering, heavy chords, listening into the slowly decaying resonances—a little infinity with the last chord! The following Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua (Andante non troppo, con lamento) was very imaginative, evoked pictures, memories from a distant past, melancholic, fading into the finest ppp…
The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga) — The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev)
Also Baba Yaga (Allegro con brio, feroce — Andante mosso — Allegro molto) saw a technically excellent, if not brilliant performance. My only quibble: the first rest (three beats) in the Allegro molto part seemed cut short by one beat, the first note in bar 3 was played as upbeat—why?
I was glad to note that also the final The Bogatyr Gates (Allegro alla breve. Maestoso. Con grandezza — Meno mosso, sempre maestoso) was grandiose, “big” in all its glory, technically excellent, but avoided all of the “Busoni excesses”. There was a strong contrast to the two chorale inserts (annotated senza espressione, interestingly!). The first one is p, the second one is annotated ff. Colli was holding back the volume in the latter, for a more impressive build-up towards the Meno mosso finale. At the transition, the descending scale / glissando reached into a depth where the concert grand produced mostly noise—but Mussorgsky’s exhaustive ending made people ignore this.
Overall Rating: ★★★★½
Encore — Bach / Myra Hess: Chorale “Jesus bleibet meine Freude“
“Pictures at an Exhibition” cannot fail with the audience! The only question left was: which encore would he play? I must say, I was somewhat disappointed by Federico Colli’s choice:
In his Cantata BWV 147 “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben“, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) used the same chorale melody twice: once in No.6, the Chorale “Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe“, and again in the final No.10, the Chorale “Jesus bleibet meine Freude“. The British pianist, Dame Julia Myra Hess (1890 – 1965) transcribed this chorale for piano, and this became the signature piece for the Romanian pianist and composer Dinu Lipatti (1917 – 1950): the piece which started his career, and the last one that he performed in public, prior to his early death. Since then, this piece is legend—it is known under the title “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in the Anglo-Saxon world.
My reservation towards this encore is two-fold:
- Primarily, it was a bad fit to all the pompous playing and music in this recital. This made it sound exceedingly simple, trivial, and people in the audience could hardly adjust to such music.
- Also, Federico Colli was nowhere nearly as subtle as Dinu Lipatti in his recordings: the chorale melody was far too dominating, which further trivialized this music.
It would have been better to resist playing an encore altogether.
The effect of what I regard the best (& most truthful) performance in this recital, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, was somewhat hampered by the splash that the artist created with the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. The latter overshadowed Mussorgsky’s music, made it look almost modest. It would have been far better to hear the “Pictures” prior to Bach-Busoni. On the other hand, the Scarlatti sonatas created an almost similar splash of their own. So, start the recital with the “Pictures”? A tricky question! Maybe, in Federico Colli’s interpretation, the “Pictures” deserve a different pairing altogether?
The selection of the encore is yet another puzzle—one which did not find an ideal solution in this recital either, see above.