Piano Recital: Alice di Piazza
Brahms / Schumann

Aula KZO, Wetzikon ZH, 2019-02-02

2.5-star rating

2019-02-05 — Original posting
2019-02-05 — All Photos removed (request by the artist’s agent)



Introduction

As earlier instances, the Klavierissimo Festival 2019 / Top Klassik Zürcher Oberland featured a series of piano recitals. There were also teaching sessions by the main artists, as well as smaller recitals before or after the main events. The final day, on Saturday, 2019-02-02, featured several events. Here is the context of the recitals that I attended this year:

The Artist: Alice di Piazza

Alice di Piazza grew up in Sicily and started playing piano at age 5. When she was 12, she had her concert debut in Messina. Thereafter, she studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London. After that, she took classes with pianists such as Krystian Zimerman (*1956), Wiesław Szlachta (*1937), Murray Perahia (*1947), and Maria João Pires (*1944). Her concert career takes her to various European countries—she has made appearances in places such as Lucerne, Brussels, Zurich, as well as Lithuania. Besides solo recitals, Alice di Piazza also appears as chamber musician, with the Russian cellist Ivan Monighetti (*1948).

For several years now, Alice di Piazza has been living in a small village near La Chaux-de-Fonds, in the french-speaking part of Switzerland. Since 2011, when she met Sofia Gubaidulina (*1931), a friendly relationship and collaboration links her to that Tatar-Russian composer.

That concert was my first encounter with the artist.

Program

Alice di Piazza’s recital program—as performed—featured the following compositions:

Venue, etc.

The venue for all recitals in the Klavierissimo Festival is the theater-like main convention hall of the local high school (KZO), a semi-circular, ascending auditorium. The venue is actually too big for the number of people attending the recitals (it’s out in the countryside)—however, this has the advantage of letting everybody sit where they want (and all seats have excellent view onto the podium), and for a Steinway D-274 concert grand, a venue of that size certainly offers better sound than a small hall with “bathroom acoustics”!

I opted for a seat in the right-hand side block, around row 10 (half-way up): this gave me a better view for taking photos. In this particular case, though, I didn’t get permission to publish any photos. I am not desperate about watching a pianist’s hands, as I’m following the score while also taking notes and operating the camera.


Brahms: Chorale Prelude “O wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen“, op.122/6 (1896)

1896, at the end of his life, Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote his 11 Chorale Preludes for Organ, op.122. These are based on 9 Lutheran chorales—two of the chorales were set twice (3 & 11, 9 & 10):

  1. “Mein Jesu, der du mich zum Lustspiel ewiglich”
  2. “Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen”
  3. “O Welt, ich muß dich lassen”
  4. “Herzlich tut mich erfreuen”
  5. “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele”
  6. “O wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen”
  7. “O Gott, du frommer Gott”
  8. “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen”
  9. “Herzlich tut mich verlangen”
  10. “Herzlich tut mich verlangen”
  11. “O Welt, ich muß dich lassen”

All of these chorale preludes are short (2 – 5 minutes), typically with four voices plus pedal. None of the preludes calls for Organo pleno, the “strongest” annotation is “f, ma dolce”, if not even Dolce alone: calm, contemplative music

Alice di Piazza played two of the preludes, in piano transcriptions that she created herself. The published program started with No.10, followed by No.6 after the two Romances by Schumann. In the recital, she decided to invert the sequence, starting with No.6, “O wie selig seid ihr doch, ihr Frommen” (O how blessed are you, you pious).

This short prelude is annotated Molto Moderato. It is in four voices almost throughout: the exception is in the last two bars, which call for a pedal point. So, No.6 leads itself to a piano transcription.

General Remarks

For reasons that will be clear below, let me start with some general remarks. Alice di Piazza’s appearance on stage was unpretentious, modest, if not even a tad shy when facing the audience.

As soon as she was sitting down at the piano, however, she seemed to be diving into her own, private world, as if all of a sudden the audience was either non-existent, or at least far, far away. She seemed immersed in an intimate dialog with the instrument—or rather, with another universe. Her lids were mostly half-closed, and if she opened the eyes, looking up from the keyboard, her view seemed to pierce the lid—imagining a world beyond? Never would she throw herself into a piece, rather start with a short contemplation, a silent worship. The choice of the two chorales certainly put the first half of her recital into a religious context.

With the first tone, though, she seemed transformed completely: totally absorbed by the music, filling the music and her mind / expression and face with emotion. She wasn’t just transfigured, but living the emotion, obviously unable to control her facial expression.

Emotionality in Music Performance

Numerous people have commented on the question whether artists should just play, or rather live the emotions in music. In other words: should the artist let the music speak, or rather “assist” the music by underlining the mood, the atmosphere through gestures, facial expressions, body language. It’s a topic way beyond the scope of this concert review. However, this afternoon featured extreme examples of both options:

  • “Compassionate”: Alice di Piazza, who was living, expressing the strong pain, the extreme suffering, the infinite longing that she saw in the music of her recital (and these seemed to be the predominant aspects of the music she performed). Often enough, her face was expressing pain—I can’t tell (from a distance, or from the photos) whether there were tears flowing or not. This went way beyond the uncontrolled grimacing of some notable pianists.
  • “Neutral”: The next artist, Deszö Ránki, was the other extreme: no matter what the expression of the music he played (and there were joyous, playful pieces, as well as more contemplative ones), his faced remained in the same focused, neutral, if not earnest expression throughout his recital.

Happiness

I have some understanding for both points-of-view: the “neutral” option may take a bigger effort on the listener’s side to immerse into the spirit of the music. If, on the other hand, an artist feels joy and happiness in music, I don’t see why (s)he should not be allowed to express these feelings, and these may then jump over to the audience, assuming the listener is able and willing to accept / assume these feelings: “Wo man singt, da lass dich ruhig nieder—böse Menschen haben keine Lieder” (Where one sings, let yourself settle down, evil people have no songs), a popular German proverb, modified from a poem by Johann Gottfried Seume (1763 – 1810).

There may be situations where a listener is unable to accept / assume such feelings of happiness, which may cause some frustration. On the other hand, I have also encountered situations where an artist’s joy stimulated enthusiasm in the audience, “infected” the listener with happiness.

Pain

With feelings of pain and suffering, however, this effect may be much more pronounced. If (!) music is expressing such emotions, the listener may or may not allow these feelings to take over his/her mood—in either case, one may still find the music enriching, moving, touching, if not even still beautiful.

I wrote: if music is expressing such emotions. There are definitely compositions where this is the case (I’ll allude to such instances below). I expect that the artist is doing the research to find out what the composer meant to express. The music here (certainly the works by Brahms) is by a composer who must have felt the nearing end of his lifespan, hence will be melancholic, may express some sadness, bitterness maybe, but possibly also indulge in memories from past, happier days—and this is definitely OK. However, it should be up to the listener to explore, to find out what the music is telling.

Imposing Emotions

Here, however, Alice di Piazza’s facial expression, her body language, and her music were extremely strong in their emotionality—way beyond all of the above. The least I can say is that this was very polarizing. Some listeners have lived with her, through her emotions—while others felt at least some degree of repulsion. I’m rather in the latter category. What should I do? Close my eyes? Why then do I attend a live concert? And even if I closed my eyes (I didn’t), there was still the extreme emotion in her playing, in her music, and in the present case I would at least doubt whether Brahms and Schumann meant to express that, or at least that strongly.

It may indeed be (and must be) how Alice di Piazza feels about this music, and of course, she is free to perform it this way—privately. In concert, however, I don’t think an artist should impose such strength and directness of emotions on a listener—that’s like putting the audience into a straightjacket, leaving the listener no option other than to feel exactly the same way (and be fascinated, perhaps strongly moved)—or to face violent rejection. With this, Alice di Piazza can at best reach a (small) part of the audience—she effectively stands in the way of her own success.

The Performance

The above already anticipates my comment on this first chorale prelude: extremely emotional, expressive—and religious, for sure. While technically flawless, Alice di Piazza “soaked” the music in despair, longing, pain. She used extreme agogics, often with multiple ritenuti in a single bar—as if every single note was either accelerating or holding back. She used arpeggiando in her touch almost throughout. No doubt: the intensity of her feelings in this music is extreme, almost beyond measure—it made me wonder what we were up to for the rest of her recital.

As with No.10 below, the lyrics of the chorale originate from the period of Pietism. But did Brahms really feel this extreme pain and suffering in the last year of his life? And even if he did: did he mean to express that in this chorale prelude? Melancholy and some bitterness may be a given. Shouldn’t the rest be left to the listener’s imagination? The recital had the title “Klaviergeheimnisse” (piano secrets). Where’s the secret if the listener is coerced into Alice di Piazza’s rigid emotional “regime”?


Schumann: Two Romances from op.28 (1839)

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) wrote the Three Romances, op.28 in 1839, in a time when he composed almost exclusively for the piano. These pieces are not performed very often. They have the following annotations:

  1. Sehr markiert (very marked / expressive, in B minor)
  2. Einfach (simple, in F major)
  3. Sehr markiert (in B major)

For her recital, Alice di Piazza selected the first two of the Romances: these are the sorter ones, the more capricious (but also poetic) Romance No.3 typically is about as long as the first two combined.

The Performance

Expectedly, the extreme emotionality persisted also in the performance of Schumann’s Romances. In No.1, however, Alice di Piazza’s playing was more fluent, and rhapsodic. Still, I felt her total immersion in the music, the overwhelming excess in her emotions. “Super-romanticism”, maybe.

The Romance No.2 is more introverted—in a way, a simple, but expressive song without words. The “simple” barely fit Alice di Piazza’s interpretation: we were back in the extreme agogics, the persistent arpeggiando playing, the strong emotions of the first chorale. Schumann wrote these pieces a year before he finally married his beloved Clara, so: sure, he was very emotional in his music. There may have been moments, periods of strong longing, desire—but wasn’t there also serenity, joyful expectation, and happiness, at least in anticipation? In this performance, I felt thrown back into the atmosphere of the initial chorale prelude. Yes, the ending was very intimate, heartfelt, and also touching…


Brahms: Chorale Prelude “Herzlich tut mich verlangen“, op.122/10 (1896)

From the same collection of 11 Chorale Preludes, op.122, by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897), Alice di Piazza now performed her transcription of op.122/10, “Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End” (From my heart I yearn for a peaceful end). Others translate this with “I desire dearly a blessed end”. The lyrics go back to the times of Pietism (early baroque), when people were still under the impression of epidemics such as the plague, and in general of the miseries of life on earth, longing and hoping for a better life in a world beyond.

The original (organ) version asks for two keyboards and pedal. The annotation is p molto legato, the pedal (with the chorale melody) requires an 8′ stop only. On the organ, this piece may sound rather somber, it is dominated by dark colors, rarely moves up into the descant.

The Performance

Alice di Piazza’s piano arrangement seemed very adequate, to say the least: those who are not familiar with the original composition will barely have missed the pedal. As expected, this formed the counterpiece of the initial chorale prelude—again with extreme emotionality, with lots of emphasis. One may or may not accept Alice di Piazza’s view of this music: on the organ one cannot possibly play so expressively. Shouldn’t a piano arrangement try to imitate / demonstrate the atmosphere, the expression, follow the emotional course of the original music? If it doesn’t, I would see this rather as “Alice di Piazza’s chorale prelude, loosely based on…”.

As indicated: I can’t pinpoint any technical flaws / deficiencies—but the character of the music, the performance left some blatant questions.


Brahms: 7 Fantasias, op.116 (1892)

1892, at age 59 , Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote the 7 Fantasias, op.116, consisting of three Capricci and four Intermezzi:

  • 1) Capriccio in D minor
  • 2) Intermezzo in A minor
  • 3) Capriccio in G minor
  • 4) Intermezzo in E major
  • 5) Intermezzo in E minor
  • 6) Intermezzo in E major
  • 7) Capriccio in D minor

Different from the arguably introverted chorale preludes, these pieces represent typical examples of Brahms’ late style, just like the Three Intermezzi, op.117, the Six Pieces for Piano (Klavierstücke), op.118, and the Four Pieces for Piano (Klavierstücke), op.119. There is Brahms’ demanding, technically challenging, “full-handed” piano part, the maturity in expression and style—and, yes, still strong emotions!

The Performance

1) Capriccio in D minor:  Presto energico

Alice di Piazza took the Presto energico literal: her playing was really energetic, even eruptive in the build-up waves. She certainly has the means to master demanding score this without technical problems. In the ff, she deployed an impressive volume and piano sound. In contrast, in the soft part, she switched to a rather mellow touch. Also here, her rubato was fairly extreme, as were the dynamics.

I asked myself: is this really the old Brahms, or isn’t this how we now see the young composer, the Brahms of the piano sonatas, full of fire, burning with emotions??

2) Intermezzo in A minor: Andante — Non troppo presto — Andante

A harsh contrast! Here now, the pianist fell into the other extreme: full of strong hesitations in the Andante introduction. In her hands, that music felt like a big question mark, giant “why?”, also expressing despair, forlornness. This continued in the central Non troppo presto, again with extreme hesitations, avoiding any impression of a steady flow, in fact avoiding even hints of an underlying pace, except perhaps shortly after the climax in the final Andante part.

Did the pianist want to show how advanced Brahms’ works were in the composer’s last years? The Intermezzo as a means, an attempt to come to grips with painful memories? Spontaneously, this performance caused flashbacks of music by Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928), e.g., performances of “In the Mists”. Janáček, however, composed this 20 years later, in a very different style, and his music reflects tragic events that Brahms luckily never had to go through.

3) Capriccio in G minor: Allegro passionato — Un poco meno Allegro — Tempo I

Agitated to the extreme, very emotional in the agogics in the Allegro passionato parts—more eruptive than I would expect for the “old Brahms”! Emotionality seemed to prevail over clarity in rhythm and structure.

The middle part formed a stark, likely excessive contrast—much stronger than what the “un poco meno” seems to suggest. Rather the young, ebullient Brahms than the mature (mellow??!) composer!

4) Intermezzo in E major: Adagio

Adagio means “calm”—does this imply the perceived absence of pace / rhythmic structure? I don’t mean to say that the pianist lacked the sense for the underlying meter—but the interpretation was as extreme as No.2—I would again have guessed Leoš Janáček as the composer, rather than Brahms! This extreme forlornness, the sense of loss, tears, mourning, extreme sadness, except maybe for a very short period of emerging hope around the climax in the second half.

5) Intermezzo in E minor: Andante con grazia ed intimissimo sentimento

Rather than what grazia (grace) and intimissimo sentimento (most intimate sentiments) might suggest, at least the outer parts felt austere, expressed a scarcity of emotions that spontaneously reminded me of some pieces by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918). Only the middle part showed emerging, subtle signs of warmth, maybe sweetness.

6) Intermezzo in E major: Andantino teneramente

The last Intermezzo followed attacca, even skipping the rests in the last bar of the preceding piece. Total immersion, very strong in the rubato—and to me, the most touching among the seven pieces, and the most adequate interpretation, closest to what I see in Brahms’ notation.

7) Capriccio in D minor: Allegro agitato

A highly virtuosic piece, pianistically / technically challenging. Alice di Piazza offered a technically impressive performance. She didn’t just observe the central two repeats, but even played the initial part (2/4 time) twice. With the exception of the more austere central part, the pianist performed also this final Capriccio very eruptively, like a composition by the young Brahms with his burning, strong emotions.

In almost all aspects: a very extreme, controversial, polarizing interpretation, even ignoring the visual aspect of Alice di Piazza’s playing. And no: I don’t measure this with the ruler of a (perceived) “standard performance”! Sure, my view is personal and inevitably influenced by how other pianists perform Brahms’ late compositions. Just one example: notable pianist such as Emil Gilels (1916 – 1985)—who certainly was not rushing through this music—took 22 minutes for the entire set, whereas here, it lasted half an hour.

That said, I try my best to rate a performance based on how it relates to the score. And one should consider the composer’s emotional situation, his age and perceived / assumed emotional state, the vision that he might have had in mind when composing the music. It certainly was a rather strange surprise to hear some of Brahms’ music sound like pieces by Leoš Janáček!


Encore — Grieg: No.1, Arietta, from “Lyric Pieces”, op.12 (Book I)

The most natural (and adequate, in my opinion) part in this 1-hour recital was in the encore. Alicia di Piazza performed the Arietta, the first one of the Lyric Pieces (Book I, op.12) by Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907): simple, cantabile, lyrical, natural, devoid of excesses in dynamics and rubato.

Thanks to the organizer for offering a hint about the encore (which I didn’t know / recognize at all)—the pianist’s announcement (in French) was hardly understandable anywhere in the hall. Shouldn’t there be a microphone for announcements by artists?



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