sun 29/03/2020

Daniel Grimwood, Miroslav Kultyshev, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Daniel Grimwood, Miroslav Kultyshev, Wigmore Hall

Daniel Grimwood, Miroslav Kultyshev, Wigmore Hall

Cascades of notes and pianistic depths in two virtuoso piano recitals

It seemed as if the usually sober Wigmore Hall was trying to shower us with as many pianistic notes as possible before the midnight bell rings in the New Year. More could hardly have been accommodated In two recitals on Monday and Wednesday evenings, when modest British virtuoso Daniel Grimwood was followed by 2007 Tchaikovsky Competition winner Miroslav Kultyshev in tackling a gaggle of densely-packed baggy monsters. It wasn't just the name of Felix Blumenfeld which was unfamiliar; I suspect musical trainspotters had a field day collecting two major but long-retired opuses by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.

Grimwood_500x300If Kultyshev was the one to scale the heights and plumb the depths, Grimwood (pictured right) certainly kept his head in a programme for which, as he put it, he could have done with sprouting an extra hand or two. He discovered the music of Felix Mikhailovich Blumenfeld leafing through the substantial collection of the late  Richard Beattie Davis. A footnote in most books on Russian music, and a benign if reactionary pedagogic presence in the substantial diaries of the young Sergey Prokofiev, Blumenfeld almost swamps the substance of  his later works with his virtuosic facility, though Grimwood kept a tight rein on the water-music of Op 38's six well-proportioned pieces.

The real fascination came with one of the last works Blumenfeld must have completed - Grimwood's notes gave no dates, and the only monograph is a hard-to-find Russian pamphlet - before an untimely brain haemorrhage in 1909 ended his pianistic career at the age of 46 (he lived on for more than two decades, but even his distinguished conducting appearances had to be severely limited). The Sonata-Fantasia's first movement is a luxuriant jungle of notes in search of a memorable theme, its restless efflorescence fascinating in itself. The slow movement drifts more hauntingly after a clear and ringing start, withdrawing into surprise chords of Scriabinish irresolution (it came as no surprise to find later that Blumenfeld the conductor was an early champion of the messianic master's earlier symphonic works).

Grimwood's determination to focus on purely musical values was a virtue here; perhaps less so in Rachmaninov's delirious First Piano Sonata. It's not an early work - the composer was working on his Second Symphony in Dresden at the same time - but few pianists want to touch its forty-five minute ramble, and if there's emotional sense to be made of its Faustian programme, Grimwood didn't find it in his noble triumph over the notes.

miro2Perhaps it needed a pianist with the Russian school's sense of holy mission, of music as a sacred rite. We'd had that not long ago at the Wigmore Hall in the vasty deeps of Elisabeth Leonskaja's Chopin recital; now along came 24-year old Miroslav Kultyshev (left) with an equally long and taxing programme. No doubt Liszt's colossal B minor Sonata, whether there's another Faust legend behind it or not, gives the pianist a clearer notion of its metaphysical intent than Rachmaninov's rampage, but that doesn't make the transcendental technique and concentration it requires any easier. Kultyshev sat as if in prayer before finding the perfect tone for the first, isolated note, and ended in the same hallowed silence. In between the torrents were unleashed with all invisible organ stops duly pulled out at the cornerstone climaxes, little in the way of hazy overpedalled thunder, and seemingly effortless space given to the many visions of consolation. In these Kultyshev raised his expressive features heavenward in the manner of his older compatriot Nikolay Lugansky (with whose profoundly musical concentration he already seems to have much in common).

This was the unmistakeable summit of Kultyshev's programme, but many of us were even more awed by his decision to play all eighteen of Tchaikovsky's last set of piano pieces, composed only a few months before the composer's untimely death with no hint of mortality in store, only a rich alchemy of human love, quirkiness and vitality to draw upon. The character pieces' varying difficulty and lengths suggest they were never intended to be played as a sequence, and I've never encountered the phenomenon - all one hour and a quarter of it - in concert before. Yet the fact that they were written in fifteen spring days gives them more of a unity than, say, the Chopin waltzes and, in the creative hands of Kultyshev, an almost equal charm.

Tchaikovsky elaborates many of his refrains, but even when he doesn't, Kultyshev played with a dance rhythm or a songline so idiosyncratically that it hardly sounded like the same idea. Passionate virtuosity occasionally ran away with itself, as in the Scherzo-fantaisie, but there was no shortage of sparkling humour in the balletic variations, above all the scintillating 5/4 waltz (witty cousin of the ones in the Pathetique and The Sleeping Beauty). Drigo found an unnecessary home for several of these in the celebrated revival of Swan Lake, but Tchaikovsky would have turned in his grave to hear how ineptly they'd been orchestrated, and how inappropriately sited, in two cases, close to the tragic denouement.

More remarkably, Kultyshev found a depth in Tchaikovsky's last lyric reflections I hadn't suspected was there. The Berceuse bid to rival Chopin's hypnotic specimen, with surprising rhythmic twists, a harping on the minor third which almost morphed into Gershwin's famous piano prelude, and a coda of infinite variety - the Chopin touch again. The big slow movement, the Pas de deux of this divertissement, was unmistakeably the Meditation, which Kultyshev yoked to the bravura of the preceding Characteristic Dance, but the pianist also matched the composer's gift to be simple in the penultimate 'Distant Past'.

The result was as glowing as the Chopin etudes and waltz Kultyshev surmounted so buoyantly at the end of a long evening. One could hardly blame Grimwood two days earlier for closing with the spaciousness of Bach, a composer one imagines the Russian might play with his own special sense of fantasy; but Kultyshev is more than just a wise, strange head on young shoulders - he's still in love with the sheer physical possibilities of his pianism, and after such a thoughtful programme we were happy to indulge him.

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I went to both concerts, and I don't agree with your write up on either. The Russian was distracting visually with his on-stage acting and insincere attempts at profundity, and frankly his Liszt was overblown in places and tepid in others. It had none of the fiery bravura that one should hear (and not see) and left me feeling rather cheated. By comparison, Grimwood's Liszt in other recitals (at the Wigmore for example) is fresh, inspired and discerningly musical, with a real sense of shape and verve. Technically, he can't be matched - but this is a moot point when playing Liszt: one has to move far beyond the notes to reach the real message in this sort of music, and your pet Russian simply didn't achieve that. I must say that I get the feeling from your writing that like many English critics, you lack confidence when faced with native Russian playing music from his homeland. Sadly, so many musicians and writers become critically impotent in the face of the Russian school of playing these days. The Cold War artistic reputation of excellence that was so rightly deserved for years has dropped away in the last 20 years, and Russia and other former Soviet states now church out little virtuosic monsters at an alarming rate. But few of them have much soul in their playing, and even fewer truly understand the stylistic inflections and flavours that doff their caps to the flavours of Italian and French schools of writing and playing, to name just two. I think here you have succumbed to the malady of confusion from smoke and mirrors: just because someone tosses their head about and stares at an apparently fascinating ceiling as he plays doesn't mean that anything deeper than self-flattery is going on. In addition, just because you have a Russian playing Russian music doesn't mean that it is stylistically correct (it wasn't) or artistically inspired (it definitely wasn't). For all his "praying" and other on stage melodramatics, I was left feeling that this constant state of movement was designed to overload the eyes with conflicting signals that were supposed to deceive the ears. Thankfully, it didn't work with me: I've spend most of my life watching the old greats from Russia wherever possible, and continue to be struck by the vision of men and women sitting incisively and intent at their keyboards as any supreme master does at his workbench. Complete mastery knows that ego does not belong alongside great work: a point that Kultyshev would do well to remember - his flouncing and posturing simply won't do. Give me Grimwood's un-egged, simple presence any day: it just reinforces the fact that this level of performance makes the artist into a channel through which the music passes to the audience - and nothing more. The fact that Grimwood has such a deep understanding of Russian music and style is even more remarkable given that he is English - if anything, your critique would be better served at drawing attention to this extraordinary diamond of a player rather than paying lip-service to paste past off as Faberge.

Cor - what a swingeing but accurate rendition from the commenter above - why are English critics so hoodwinked by "foreign" performers: it makes us look like such amateurs. I'm sure it is something to do with a subconscious belief that music is something done best by everyone apart from the English - though apart from musicians like Grimwood and his cello partner Jamie Walton, the English fare offered these days is either reedy and tepid, or brash and unrefined...

Of course you are entitled to your point of view but it won't change mine. It's unfair to assert that I'm hoodwinked by Russian 'exoticism' or that the ear is deceived by what the eye sees. I heard depth in Kultyshev's playing; I was interested in Grimwood's approach and admired his fingerwork but wasn't comparably touched. That may have something to do with the programme. If you can't have respect for differening opinions and experience, too bad.

To day at Finchcoks in Kent I heard Daniel Grimwood play a piece by Alkan "Train mecanique" ( if I got the name right ) which I had never heard before, yet I was very familiar with Alkan's compositions ( Thanks to Ronald Smith and Marc Andre Hamelin) An impressive modern/mecanical piece which could have been composed quite recently and not in the XIXth c. Could anyone tell me if this piece has been recorded by anyone else, (D.Grimwood has not,not yet ) Thanks for awaited info,T.W.

Just stumbled across this. I've read all the comments with interest and some amusement! Objective musical criticism is, of course, an impossibility; our art form is purely subjective. David is absolutely right that we are all entitled to our points of view, and any artist knows that one can't please all the people all the time, and any critic knows that there will always be those who disagree with their conclusions. The value of the critical profession is that it opens dialogues, and sometimes illuminates aspects of performance that the artist may not have conceived. As to the comments about movement and posture etc. all pianists evolve unique ways with the instrument. I'm simply not very good at multi-tasking and find that I can't concentrate if I move very much! That particular programme was formulated not as an audience pleaser, but as a tribute and memorial to my dear and sorely missed friend, Richard Beattie Davis. I'm aware that as a programme, it was hardly self-flattering; I don't think anyone could claim that the Rachmaninoff D minor Sonata is easy listening! A rugged, unpolished masterpiece it is, and is well worth the odd airing. My aim of arousing some interest in Blumenfeld seems to have been fulfilled so I'm happy. Tatiana, many thanks for coming to my birthday concert at Finchcocks, Alkan's 'le Chemin de Fer' is recorded on Naxos with quite an interesting selection of other works. It is hard to believe that it belongs to the nineteenth century isn't it!?

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