Piano Recital: Teo Gheorghiu
Beethoven, Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Balakirev
2015-11-02 — Original posting
2016-08-13 — Brushed up for better readability
- Introduction — About the Artist
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80
- Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828): Four Impromptus, op.90, D.899
- Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943): 8 Études-Tableaux, op.33
- Mily Balakirev (1837 – 1910): Oriental Fantasy, “Islamey”, op.18
- Summary, Encores
- Addendum 1
- Addendum 2
- CDs with Teo Gheorghiu
Introduction — About the Artist
Teo Gheorghiu (*1992) was born in Männedorf at the lake of Zurich. He has a Canadian passport and Romanian ancestors. Teo Gheorghiu was a child prodigy at the piano. In 2006, he even has played such a child in the (locally popular) Swiss film “Vitus” (2006) by Fredi Murer (*1940). Both being a child prodigy and the reputation of acting in a popular film at early age is not only fame, but can be a burden. I’m sure Teo Gheorghiu doesn’t want people to identify him with that film role forever. He needs to detach himself from that time, venture new fields, new repertoire — and, in fact, re-adopt stuff from his early days.
As an example: already as a child he tackled the very challenging Oriental Fantasy “Islamey” by Mily Balakirev. Inevitably (according to his own words), this was a tailored version. Now, he needed to go through the painstaking process of re-learning this piece, which he claims took longer than learning it from scratch. Teo Gheorghiu presented the result of this effort at the end of this concert, see below.
About Teo Gheorghiu’s upbringing as a pianist: he began his formal education in 2001, with William Fong, at the Purcell School in London. From there he moved to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where Gary Graffman (*1928) was his teacher (Yuja Wang also studied with Graffman). Right now, he is continuing his education at the Royal Academy of Music, in London. Teo Gheorghiu gave his debut concert at the age of 12 in Zurich, playing the Piano Concerto in A minor by Robert Schumann. Along with his education, he is since pursuing a career as concert pianist. 2004 he won the first prize at the International Piano Competition in San Marino, and in 2005 again the first prize at the international Franz List Piano Competition in Weimar.
But let’s see how he performed in this concert!
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80
The concert started with the 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80, which Beethoven wrote in 1806. These variations feature a very short theme of 8 bars. Rhythmic structure and the harmonic progression dominate this theme, rather than a melody. At best, one could think about motifs forming the outline of a melody. Despite the brevity of the theme, some of the variations are technically quite demanding (for piano music of that time).
Teo Gheorghiu mastered this piece seemingly without effort at all, relaxed, with almost casual hand posture. He was excellent at “keeping together” variations 1 – 27 (which he mostly played attacca) by making them appear with the same base pulse / pace, despite their large diversity.
In variations 27 (semplice) up to 30, Beethoven is focusing on the harmonic structure of the theme (rather than the rhythm). Here, Teo Gheorghiu (expectedly) explored more freedom in the tempo. In variation 31, though, the rhythmic component of the theme returns with force. The long variation 32 is rather a Coda, in itself appearing like a (sub-)set of variations. It elaborates on the harmonic progression of the theme, but with less stringent periodicity.
The Variations in C minor are a brilliant virtuoso piece by Beethoven, overall.
I got the impression that the artist saved and carefully administered his forces in view of the demanding second half of the recital. His playing never appeared extroverted, trumping, let alone overblown, but rather refreshingly natural. Initially, his keyboard touch may have been a bit over-cautious. During the first five variations, Gheorghiu avoided an excess of marcato, rather risked omitting one or the other note.
However, these minor mishaps did not disconcert the artist at all: I remember other artists, where such incidents would cause subsequent passages to be played with additional (or excess) force and clarity. They appeared to leave Teo Georghiu completely unaffected in his playing. Overall, this was an excellent and convincing start into the recital: perfection may be a goal for the recording industry rather than for a live concert.
Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828): Four Impromptus, op.90, D.899
It was the editor who started using the title “Impromptu” with these four pieces, not the composer. The same holds true for the four later ones, which appeared after the composer’s death only, as op.posth.142. These are now also known as D.935 in the Deutsch catalogue).
The name Impromptu is not entirely inadequate, though. It appears to indicate a spontaneous, “as if improvised” piece. Though, this (along with the absence of major technical challenges) may cause artists and listeners to take these pieces as light entertainment music. I think this is a big mistake. These are late works, composed 1827. Schubert must have felt the severe impact of the illness(es) that led to his death in the following year. Teo Gheorghiu played them with mostly soft contours, avoiding harshness.
Impromptu No.1 in C minor
Already the opening chord in Impromptu No.1 in C minor was mf rather than ff, and the dynamics in the entire piece remained mostly constrained, not expansive. The tempi in Gheorghiu’s Schubert were fluent, the playing was clear. I liked the very moderate use of the sustain pedal: this caused the sound to be somewhat closer to that of instruments at Schubert’s time. What I missed here was the emotional weight, the underlying feeling of despair, the scary views into the fatal abyss. To me, the interpretation was too serene and somewhat harmless; I think the piece deserves more agogics and expression — and more intensity and warmth in the middle part.
Impromptu No.2 in E♭ major
In Impromptu No.2 in E♭ major with its wonderful, harmoniously flourishing triplet chains, Teo Gheorghiu played relatively fast. This led to some superficiality in the secondary voices. The ben marcato in the middle part was barely recognizable, not dramatic enough. Again, I missed the support / enhancement by the appropriate amount of agogics. I’m not sure if the strong accelerando in the Coda is justified: there is no such annotation in my score.
Impromptu No.3 in G♭ major
This felt lyrical, with a very good dynamic balance and flowing, but not excessively prominent sextuplet chains in the middle voice. Gheorghiu did actually use a decent amount of agogics — but despite this, I missed some depth and drama.
Impromptu No.4 in A♭ major
Finally, I found Impromptu No.4 in A♭ major compelling in its wonderful cantilenas, especially in the parts with triplet accompaniment. The outer parts feature semiquaver garlands, strangely separated by an accent on the third beat in the last bar, followed by a rest. It is challenging to maintain the musical flow and rhythmic continuity across these rests. In my view, this wasn’t quite satisfactory in Gheorghiu’s interpretation. The start of the garlands often appeared slightly rushed, and some of the rests felt slightly odd, not natural enough.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943): 8 Études-Tableaux, op.33
Teo Gheorghiu showed his real potential and power as a pianist only after the intermission, in the „Etudes-Tableaux“ op.33 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Here, he really is in his proper element! Rachmaninoff’s op.33 is a set of technically highly demanding pieces — between 2 and 5 minutes each, and very diverse in their character.
The publishing history of op.33 is somewhat complex: the composer first published a set of six Etudes, later inserted three additional pieces. One of these (sometimes still called Etude-Tableau op.33/4) later (re-)appeared as op.39/6. Pianists typically (and also in this concert) don’t include this in performances of op.33. This leaves the 8 Etudes-Tableaux Nos.1, 2, 3, 5 – 9 in op.33.
The visual impression was that Teo Gheorghiu mastered these difficult pieces without major efforts, without showing signs of facing technical challenges:
Etude-Tableau op.33/1 (Allegro non troppo, molto marcato)
Brilliant, with loosely articulated octaves, not as a colossal beast as with some other artists. However, it is possible that the acoustics and the smaller piano (Steinway B) made this sound somewhat lighter than in other settings. I liked the ending which seemed to disappear like mice running away from the light.
Etude-Tableau op.33/2 (Allegro)
Very good in its lyrical mood, combined with urging melody lines.
Etude-Tableau op.33/3 (Grave)
Relaxed serenity, wonderfully singing cantilenas.
Etude-Tableau op.33/5 (Moderato)
The beginning evokes a ghastly scenery and reminds me of Le gibet (the gallows) from Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit — after four bars it rapidly picks up pace and later almost sounds folklorist, though with substantial technical challenges in the score, masterfully played by Teo Gheorghiu. I really liked how he managed to reveal the hidden melodies in the middle voices.
Etude-Tableau op.33/6 (Non allegro — Presto)
Played really well, masterfully, virtuosic, and with excellent flow. The same applies to
Etude-Tableau op.33/7 (Allegro con fuoco)
Serene / relaxed, festive mood.
Etude-Tableau op.33/8 (Moderato)
Here, I again liked the excellent musical flow, the calmness in its slightly melancholic melody lines, interrupted by a middle part and an ending where the emotions briefly start boiling up.
Etude-Tableau op.33/9 (Grave — Poco meno mosso)
This is a piece of only three minutes, but almost monstrous with its enormous technical demands. Teo Gheorghiu mastered these in an enthralling, impressive performance: congrats!
Mily Balakirev (1837 – 1910): Oriental Fantasy, “Islamey”, op.18
Gheorghiu concluded the official program with the Oriental Fantasy “Islamey”, op.18, created 1869 by the Russian composer Mily Balakirev. The conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow (1830 – 1894) once declared this to be the most difficult piece in the entire piano literature. Some people who fancy looking for world records may still see it this way, and some “keyboard athletes” may enjoy and even promote this judgement, seemingly reconfirming it by an excess of demonstrative virtuosity, brilliance and perfection.
Sure, the technical demands in this piece are extreme. But it was amazing how Teo Gheorghiu mastered this with apparently relaxed playing and clear articulation. He did not push the tempo to the extreme, which helped the audience in following the often complex texture of the score. In the first parts, the Fantasy appeared joyful, playful. But the music then grew onto the almost grotesque escapades of the final part. I found Gheorghiu’s performance very good overall. The one thing that I somehow missed was that the piece failed to evoke the tumultuous chaos, the entangled shouting and other noises of an oriental market. What exactly is forming the pictorial nature of some music? I can’t pinpoint a method for creating that, other than maybe the artist living it while playing.
In retrospect, I find it interesting that for his debut CD as solo pianist, Teo Gheorghiu selected the Schubert Impromptus op.90, D.899 — the part of the concert program which convinced me the least. In my opinion, his current strength is rather in the virtuosic repertoire of late romantic music. But at an age of 23 he is far from having explored all of his pianistic and artistic potential. It will be interesting to see and follow into which areas he will be expanding his repertoire in the coming years. We wish him all the best for his career!
For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.
I have done a brief review of a small set of recordings of Schubert’s Four Impromptus, op.90, D.899 in my Listening Diary of 2015-10-31.
CDs with Teo Gheorghiu
Two CDs with Teo Gheorghiu are currently available (I’m posting these merely for reference — I have not reviewed these CDs):
Franz Schubert: Impromptus D 899; Schubert/Liszt: “Wanderer-Fantasie”; Franz Liszt: “La Vallée d’Obermann”
Sony Classical 88875010832 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2015
Dvořák Chamber Music with the Carmina Quartet
Dvořák: Piano Quintet op.81, String Quartet op.96
Carmina Quartet, Teo Gheorghiu
Sony Classical 88875010832 (CD, stereo); ℗ 2012 / © 2014