Sometimes one may hear great pianists in unusual locales. At a literary conference in Newbridge, Ireland, devoted to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, I had the good fortune of hearing the great Swedish pianist Hans Pålsson who enjoys a rather large repertoire. The concert at Newbridge College Theatre was the virgin concert of a new Steinway piano whose clarity offered a sounded like (to quote Hopkins) “shook foil.” Pålsson’s sensitive pressure on the keys made the piano sing in two modalities: Baroque and Romantic, casting an arc of hisotical development that highlighted glistening arpeggio runs.
Opening with a short Fantasia in C minor by J.S. Bach, BWV 906, which was intended to have a second fugue movement which we don’t have (whether uncompleted or lost we don’t know), this lighthearted foray into playful variations of a theme in different keys showcases what Bach can accomplish with ten notes with minimal pedal movement (c. 1738). Varying keys and emotional tenor Bach breezily plunges into a kaleidoscope of how music can wittily record momentary emotions that are as fleeting as a running stream (Bach’s name means just that). Sunlight appears to glint on each mood recorded in this surprisingly and delightful minimalism. As an opener, it was like opining a window that let the scent of mellow but crisp fresh air into the confines of the concert hall.
Another piece brimming with genial optimism followed: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sonata in A major, KV 331, written in the first year of his marriage to Constanze Weber when romance was able to conquer poverty. Following the three-movement emotional pattern found in much of Antonio Vivaldi’s work (breezily fast, followed by slow and melancholy, then rousingly fast and enjoyably optimistic), Mozart begins with a frisson of rippling notes as if recording the bright banter of lively conversation. Then like Bach, Mozart plunges into simple notes with varied textures that allow repetition to emphasize sadness, boredom, or lassitude. The sonata then turns into madcap pleasure, dancing with intoxicating Oriental dizziness amid cross-handed fingering to arrive at a subdued conclusion that records exhaustion as this whirling dervish display of cascading arpeggios ending like an exhausted whirling top that gently thuds on the floor.
A roll of short yet interesting pieces followed. Two late Impromtus by Franz Schubert just before he died at the shocking age of 31 in 1828 plunged into Romanticism. Schubert had the Romantic knack of eulogizing melancholy, making it poetic, attractive, and haunting. Impromptu No. 2 in A-flat major, Op. 142.2 is often heard as Schubert’s resigned, introverted acceptance of death. He most likely died from typhoid like Gerard Manley Hopkins. Impromptu No. 4in A-flat major, Op, 90.4, rich in delightful melodies, creates a struggle with pleasure as pitted against melancholy while employing counterpoint to heighten the clash. Pålsson’s recording of this piece is considered to be “matchless” by the poet Desmond Egan, the Artistic Director of the Hopkins Conference. To hear this Schubert piece live on such a good piano was an incredible treat.
Two short pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau followed. Le Rappel des Oiseaux (The Calls of Birds) is something of a tone poem on the subject of bird song before dawn. Le Poule (The Hen) was a short, clever comic number about the pecking behavior of hens. Sucj extroverted comic relief heightened the effect of the more serious pieces played before. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a great fan of Rameau. When Diderot made Rousseau the music editor of the famous Encyclopedia, Diderot was not pleased with Rousseau’s championing of Rameau over the school of Jean-Baptiste Lully. Diderot thought Rameau’s music too derivative of Italian music. Diderot later achieved a measure of revenge against Rousseau by satirizing Rousseau’s personality in the comic, dialog novel Rameau’s Nephew (1763).
Pålsson pedaled into chromaticism with some Nocturnes by Claude Debussy. These were early pieces that built the path to Debussy’s more famous masterpieces of pianistic Impressionism. As fitting in the form invented by the Dubliner John Field and perfected by Chopin, these pieces emphasized mood over melodic development as Debussy pushed a Romantic invention into a kind of pointillism on the piano.
Camille Saint-Saëns remains one of the musical giants, yet his marvelous piano pieces are rarely performed in concert halls. I had never before heard his Allegro Appassionato, Op. 70, which I found astonishing. The passion here was for the range, color, and capabilities of the piano with tour-de-force arpeggio runs like cascading waterfalls as if one was given a rapid slide-show of the pictorial wonders of the world, the greatest wonder being a pianist who can conjure and meld technique with rapid emotional vistas, something Pålsson accomplished with vigorous sprezatura.
If I did not have a concert program, I would have thought the concert to be over. But we were at half-time where the audience was offered a glass of wine (which had always been offered in classical Greek theater whenever the singing and dancing chorus appeared). Part II focused on Romantic masterpieces. Pålsson played Robert Schumann’s Variations on a Theme by Clara Wieck in F minor, Op. X., written when Schumann was 27. Robert took Clara’s six note melody and created an allegory of the four stages of life. The beginning appears to chart helpless infancy to mischievous toddler-hood. The lighthearted years of growing to puberty are joyfully depicted. Both hands shout with great drama as more sophisticated variations of the melody are found in young adulthood in a celebration of maturity. The work and ultimate sadness of leaving all things in life behind in one’s final years of life supplies funeral lamentation. Clara’s simple melody freights the beauty and transience of life wt an elemental pathos. Simplicity has traveled from optimistic innocence to powerful, plangent emotional elegy.
Ludwig von Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110. I had heard Pålsson a few years before playing several Beethoven sonatas. After hearing him play, I threw out all of my recordings of Beethoven’s sonatas because I couldn’t bear to hear them after hearing Pålsson play Beethoven. Here Beethoven explores the depths melancholy like no other composer before him. After three movements painting various shades of bleakness, the fourth movement presents dramatic reversal with a sense of possible hope in the future. Counterpoint nearly approaches paralysis but the affirming arpeggio runs conclude with seeing life as an open question mark since the future cannot be known. The resonant pathos in each note that Pålsson played conveyed such deep mediation that the meditation bordered on the hypnotic.
The audience offered wild applause. Pålsson offered an encore: the last two movements of Schumann’s Kinderszenen. He played these movements much slower than I have heard them before, whether on recordings or in concert. The last of these movements, the lullaby, has always received different interpretations. Sometimes pianists conclude with a comic “finally asleep,” or “nicely done, baby,” or “sweet, wonderful child,” which is how Pålsson ended it, an interpretation I had not heard before. I spoke to Pålsson afterward and he admitted that he had deliberately slowed down the rhythm to get that effect, saying that pianists love to offer differing interpretations of childhood and especially the conclusion, an aspect that makes Schumann’s Romantic exaltation of childhood such a concert favorite.
Pålsson had poured new wine into old casks throughout the concert. His playing delivered incredible modulation, immediacy, and inspired ecstatic implosions. The range of emotions depicted in such depth was dazzling. The arc of concert’s historical presentations echoed in my mind for days as fragments erupted in my memory long after the concert. This was perhaps the longest piano concert I have ever encountered—it happened at the fingers of a great master.