Liszt is dead, long live the piano recital

Classical Music round-up: Recitals by John O’Conor, Marino Formenti and Philip Glass ranged from the masterful to the radical

On Monday, Google’s homepage ran a picture to celebrate the 360th birthday of Bartolomeo Cristofori, inventor of the piano and keeper of instruments for the Medicis in Florence. The instrument Cristofori invented was originally called a “harpsichord with soft and loud” even though the distinction between the two is large (the harpsichord produces sound by plucking strings, the piano by striking them with a hammer). Only three of the newfangled instruments he made – all of them dating from the 1720s – survive.

More than a century later the piano recital was devised. It was Liszt who first decided to have the whole stage to himself, and set the fashion for dispensing with the mixture of celebrities and supporting acts that had prevailed up to that time. As he wrote about his audacity to a friend: "Le concert, c'est moi!" And he called his appearance at the Hanover Square Rooms in London in June 1840 not a concert but a recital.

The composer-pianists of the day concentrated on their own works. Liszt set a marker in this regard, too, choosing music that ranged from Bach through Beethoven and up to Chopin. He set the pattern for playing from memory, and cemented the platform layout we know today by turning the then-conventional position of the instrument on the stage through 90 degrees. He was what we would now call a sex symbol as well as a star musician, and the new arrangement allowed the audience to see his impressive profile as well as to hear the instrument more clearly. The standards he set have survived without significant alteration right up to the present.

O’Conor’s clear message

It's been a pretty sturdy formula: witness John O'Conor at the NCH (Monday, April 27th), playing Schubert's Sonata in B flat, D960, and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, the kind of coupling that at any time in the history of the piano recital would mark someone out as a seriously thoughtful and ambitious performer.


O’Conor’s sole departure from convention was to play from the music, although this didn’t prevent some peculiar momentary slips of the finger, the kind of thing you would put down to lapses in concentration.

His playing had something of the air of a grand master about it, the big picture always well understood and set out clearly. The subdued sombreness at the start of the Schubert was beautifully caught, the wicked wit, daring and musical chutzpah of the Beethoven all well conveyed. The delivery may have been prone to momentary blurring of detail, but the core musical message was always unambiguous.

O'Conor's recital was the first of three I heard over a period of eight days. The others fell into rather different categories, with Italian pianist Marino Formenti's programme at St Peter's Church of Ireland, Drogheda (Saturday, May 2nd), titled Kurtág's Ghosts, being about as radical a reimagining of the piano recital as you could wish for.

Formenti’s starting point is the music of Hungarian composer György Kurtág, a contemporary master of the miniature, whose pithiness is often focused on tributes and memorials to colleagues and friends, and also the great composers he admires.

The typical piano recital includes just a handful of pieces. Kurtág's Ghosts runs to more than 60, presented in two seamless halves, as a kind of montage that blurs boundaries so that pieces and styles that are separated by centuries can flow by as part of the same continuum.

It’s a mesmerising, dizzying idea that ventures fearlessly through seven centuries. The opening moves from Machaut to Kurtág to Stockhausen and Messiaen; the second opens with Purcell and dwells on Schumann and Liszt as well as Kurtág.

Formenti’s playing has something of a Jekyll and Hyde character: all kid-gloves softness in one mode, and rough-edged, fiercely driven energy in the other. The effect on Saturday was to heighten the dissonance of some of the earlier music, and occasionally to soften the contours of more recent work. Formenti’s reconception of what a piano recital might be and might do is musical planning with an unusually explicit agenda. So it’s hardly surprising that the playing itself should conform to that agenda, too.

Heart of Glass

Philip Glass's The Études tour, which visited the NCH (May 4th) is a throwback to the old way of doing things: a big-name composer sharing the billing in his own work with some younger, lesser lights.

Glass's Études for solo piano, 20 in all, were written over two decades and completed in 2012. They are studies in the classical sense, focusing – as do studies from Chopin and Liszt to Nancarrow and Ligeti – on very specific issues. Some were even written for the composer himself to brush up aspects of his piano technique.

As studies go, they're rather long. The 24 of Chopin's Opp 10 and 25 take about an hour. Glass's 20 take more than twice as long. They're full of what sound like passing references to other music, and not just other keyboard studies; the opening of No 2, for instance, sounds like it used John Cage's In a Landscape as a springboard.

Yet the keyboard style is rather narrow. The trademark rocking and arpeggiation, and the familiar movements in chordal patterns are retained like a watermark that’s needed to maintain the branding. This particular form of rigour harks back not so much to the likes of Chopin but further back, to Czerny, where pattern was king.

Glass’s own playing is not the tidiest. He shared the programme with the altogether more disciplined and brilliant-sounding Maki Namekawa. But the star of the show was Timo Andres, whose skilful musical sculpting explored degrees of light and shade that were otherwise in short supply in what was a very long evening.

The air of musical metamorphosis that was such a feature of Formenti's programme surfaced also in the Latvian Radio Choir's programme under its music director, Sigvards Klava (NCH, March 3rd). The Latvian singers performed Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt's Immortal Bach, which subjects Bach's chorale Komm, süsser Tod to a series of dissolves, creating a musical analogue of a speck of dye slowly dissolving and spreading in a liquid.

The 24-strong choir is an ensemble at the top of its game, as impressive in the sonorous riches of Rachmaninov's Vespers as in the unique vocal challenges of Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds's Albanian influenced Légende de la femme emmurée, or the wordless wonders of Swedish composer Anders Hillborg's Mouyayoum.