Piano Recital: Juan Pérez Floristán
Liszt / Debussy / Gershwin / Bartók / Ginastera
Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2017-02-07
Here’s another piano recital in the Semper-Aula at the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich, in the context of “Musik an der ETH“. It’s a small venue (99 seats)—and sadly, even that small place was anything but sold out. “The absent are always wrong”, the saying goes. This was particularly true here. Those who decided against attending this recital have missed one of the highlights of the season!
Juan Pérez Floristán (*1993) was born in Sevilla / Spain. Floristán started learning piano playing when he was ten, under his mother, María Floristán, his main teacher and mentor. He then went on to study with Galina Eguiazarova at the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía in Madrid, later continuing his studies with Eldar Nebolsin at the Hanns Eisler School of Music in Berlin. Juan Pérez Floristán won the first prize and audience award of the 2015 Paloma O’Shea International Piano Competition in Spain.
At his young age, he has already been in contact with various prominent personalities in the music world. His Web biography mentions Daniel Barenboim (*1942), Elisabeth Leonskaja (*1945), Ferenc Rados (*1934), Claudio Martínez-Mehner (*1970), Menahem Pressler (*1923), and Ralf Gothóni. For more information see also Wikipedia.
As he entered the venue for this recital, Juan Pérez Floristán appeared unpretentious and objective. His friendly, hinted smile gave no indication of nervousness or stage anxiety, nor even signs of presumptuousness—a blank sheet of paper, in a way. In the aftermath, one could interpret his appearance as perfect understatement. Calm and unhurried, he sat down at the instrument, waited for the audience to be silent. Then, he mentally prepared himself for the bulky, if not monstrous dimensions of Liszt’s famous sonata.
Liszt: Sonata in B minor, S.178
The Sonata in B minor, S.178 by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) appears like a single, bulky—though multifaceted—movement. The tempo annotations give an idea about the overall dramaturgy, the overall duration is in the order of 30 minutes:
- Lento assai (4/4) —
- Allegro energico (2/2) —
- Grandioso (3/2 — 4/4) —
- Recitativo (3/2 — 2/2) —
- Andante sostenuto (3/4) —
- Quasi Adagio (4/4 — 3/4) —
- Allegro energico (2/2 — 3/2) —
- Cantando espress., senza slentare (4/4) —
- Stretta quasi Presto —
- Presto —
- Prestissimo (4/4 — 3/2) —
- Andante sostenuto (3/4) —
- Allegro moderato (4/4) —
- Lento assai
Lento assai —
The assai in the first tempo annotation is not really precise (there are no metronome numbers): in translation, this may be seen as “(slow) enough”—while others take it as “plenty (slow)”. Juan Pérez Floristán takes the initial octaves in the bass (on G, Lento assai) at a consciously measured pace—precise, clearly staccato. The resigned, descending bars between the staccato beats are equally measured and with precise articulation. The pianist makes no attempt to attenuate the dissonance on the punctuated crotchet. Composer and pianist appear to leave the listener in limbo about what’s to come next.
That changed instantly with the Allegro energico, which instantly throws the listener into a very dramatic scenery.
Initially I felt that the sustain pedal was used a little excessively: while the double punctuations sounded accurate, clear, acute, the staccato appeared slightly soft(ened). However, this could have been caused (fully or in parts) by the acoustics of the venue. That impression didn’t last long, and later I no longer thougfht about this: either my hearing adapted itself to the acoustics, or the pianist adjusted his playing to the acoustics?
After the double fermata in bar 17, where Liszt unleashes his temperament in a dramatic build-up from p, agitato to ff, then rinf., etc., Floristán formed fluent scales / runs, impressive, harmonious build-ups and breathtaking climaxes.
The volume that Floristán generates on the Steinway D is astounding, though the pianist maintains clarity, never lets the music degrade into a dense or “thick” mash. In his interpretation, there are no dead moments throughout the sonata: at all times, the music—or the interpretation—remains emotional, vivid / living in its expression, dramatic overall, and well-formed (durchgestaltet) also throughout the fugato. Yet, I never got the impression of cold perfection.
The violent segments leave the listener almost breathless—yet, the pianist keeps an eye on the melodic aspects, brings out the cantabile in marvelously singing melody likes, forms eloquent recitatives, in which he appears to tell stories. I liked the immediacy in Listzt’s small-scale changes in mood and atmosphere.
The many octave parallels are very virtuosic, but never degrade to hollow show attitude—Juan Pérez Floristán lives this music, fills it with expression: an amazingly mature interpretation, successful from beginning to end!
While Liszt’s sonata filled the first half of the recital, the second part after the intermission consisted of 10 short(er) pieces by Debussy, Gershwin, and Ginastera, plus Bartók’s Piano Sonata, Sz.80 / BB 88. In this, Juan Pérez Floristán not only confirmed his amazing technical abilities, but also, that he is able to put together a program in which the pieces and their interpretation form a compelling, overarching overall dramaturgy.
Debussy: 4 Préludes
Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) published two books of 12 Préludes each. Juan Pérez Floristán selected four of these pieces, first three Préludes from the second book (Préludes, Livre 2, L.123), from 1912/1913:
- No.3: La puerta del vino: Mouvement de habanera avec de brusques oppositions d’extrême violence et de passionnée douceur
- No.10: Canope: Très calme et doucement triste
- No.6: “General Lavine” – eccentric: Dans le style et le mouvement d’un cake-walk
Followed by one Prélude from the first book (Préludes, Livre 1, L.117), from 1909/1910:
- No.7: Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest: Animé et tumultueux
Book II, No.3: La Puerta de Vino
Here, the impulsivity from Liszt’s sonata still appeared to reverberate. To me, the interpretation sounded concrete rather than impressionistically veiled. However, Debussy explicitly asks for abrupt changes between extrême violence and passionnée douceur (passionate sweetness).
Book II, No.10: Canope
Quite a contrast to No.3: clarity in the expression, reminding me of Ravel’s piano music.
Book II,No.6: “General Lavine” – eccentric
A capricious piece, again very clear in keyboard touch and articulation.
Book I, No.7: Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest
To me, this last one of the Debussy Préludes was the most impressionist of the selection, even though also here, Floristán was focusing on clarity. At the ff and sff marks, the pianist exploited the full dynamic range of the concert grand—but he never tried asking for more than the instrument could deliver cleanly: the sonority was kept under control at all times.
Gershwin: 3 Preludes
Obviously thinking of the 24 Préludes, op.28 by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) or Debussy’s 24 Préludes (and their predecessors), George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) intended to write 24 Preludes himself. The manuscript then only held 7 pieces, five of which were performed in public (1926). In the end, the composer only published three of the pieces:
- Allegro ben ritmato e deciso
- Andante con moto (not as published in 1927)
- Agitato (as marked in the manuscript, not as published)
1. Allegro ben ritmato e deciso
Despite its jazzy nature, the enthralling, syncopated rhythms, this first Prelude seemed to carry along the attitude from the preceding Préludes by Debussy.
2. Andante con moto
As a kind of antithesis, the swaying, swinging second Prelude formed a resting point. The musical language here seems well-familiar—too familiar, maybe (with earworm potential!). Still, Floristán kept up the intensity in the expression, the presence of the music. Never, this turned into pure entertainment—it remained art music, even in the casually thrown-in, ornamented, often swirling melody lines, accompanied by the ternary swinging in the Jazz accompaniment in the left hand.
The final Prelude is technically very demanding—it unfolds a sparkling, rhythmic firework.
Bartók: Piano Sonata, Sz.80 / BB 88
Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) composed his well-known, popular Piano Sonata, Sz.80 / BB 88 in 1926—at the same time when Gershwin wrote the above Preludes. The sonata features three movements:
- Allegro moderato
- Sostenuto e pesante
- Allegro molto
From how I remember other interpretations of Bartók’s Sonata, I expected music with a rather different attitude in comparison to Gershwin. I was proven wrong in these expectations.
Juan Pérez Floristan’s interpretation of the first movement did not focus on—or constrain the music to—its hard, percussive aspects, as frequently heard in other interpretations. Here, the music seemed derived from Gershwin’s, as Floristán emphasized the jazzy, syncopated and almost playful aspects of this movement. Despite the technical superiority in Juan Pérez Floristán’s performance, I had one minor reservation: the tempo changes towards the end of the movement to me did not sound quite convincing. To me, they felt a tad arbitrary, lacking some extra, compelling logic, “inner justification”.
Sostenuto e pesante
The Sostenuto e pesante (sustained and heavy) movement spontaneously evoked reminiscences of “Le gibet” from “Gaspard de la nuit” by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937), in its forlornness and loneliness—despite the steely flashing chordal beats.
The final movement is again strongly rhythmic—heard here in a very virtuosic interpretation with clarity and conciseness. The accompaniment is very percussive. Yet, Floristán managed to highlight the singing, melodic component, hereby avoiding the impression of technical dryness with this music.
Ginastera: 3 Danzas Argentinas, op.2
Alberto Ginastera (1916 – 1983) was one of the leading composers of the last century in Latin America. In 1937, he composed a set of 3 Argentinian dances, the 3 Danzas Argentinas, op.2. These dances formed the end of the official program in Floristán’s recital, taking the music beyond the world of Jazz, into the world of popular Latin American dance music. Yet, they remain very virtuosic piano music. All three dances are in 6/8 time (except for a few 9/8 bars in op.2/3) :
Danza del viejo boyero, op.2/1
The “Dance of the Old Herdsman” (Animato e allegro, 3/8 = 138) is a syncopated staccato strudy
Danza de la moza donosa, op.2/2
This is the “Dance of the Beautiful Maiden” (Dolcemente espressivo, 3/8 = 60, tempo rubato) features singing melancholy in the right hand, above a swaying accompaniment. To me, this evoked the picture of loneliness in the endless Argentinian landscape.
Danza del gaucho matrero, op.2/3
Finally, the “Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy” (Furiosamente ritmico e energico, 3/8 = 152): strongly rhythmic, true fireworks (ending in ffff)—and a very virtuosic finale to the recital. Absolutely enthralling, vivid—Juan Pérez Floristán loves and lives this music!
The small audience offered a strong applause—and the pianist offered an encore, despite the length and the technical, as well as physical demands of the official recital program. He selected a composition by the American Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965), whom Wikipedia lists as composer, music theorist, pianist, teacher, publisher, and impresario. The piece selected as encore is named The Tides of Manaunaun and was composed 1917.
As Floristán explained, Cowell was anticipating techniques that were ahead of his time—techniques that were only to be taken up by composers such as John Cage (1912 – 1992). The pianist must have been referring to the “arm clusters” and “hand clusters”, mainly in the left hand, in which the pianist appears to throw his full weight onto (or into) the keyboard. The explanation may be true—however, in its expression and atmosphere, the dark bass clusters in this work rather strongly reminded me of “La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer” from the 25 Préludes, op.31 Charles-Valentin Alkan by (1813 – 1888). Now, that latter piece was truly revolutionary at its time! Of course, both Alkan’s weird / strange piece as well as Cowell’s “Tides” are fascinating music, in their own way!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a strict translation of the Bachtrack review.