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Hans Pålsson Rocks Newbridge at Hopkins Festival

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Wed Jul 24th, 2019

Hans Pålsson in Newbridge Ireland

Celebrated Swedish pianist Hans Pålsson opened with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, K. 310 (1788). Written in Paris where Mozart arrived in March with his mother, its melancholy mood and meditative introspection is often thought to be a recollection of his mother’s death in July of that year, shortly after their arrival. Mozart was twenty-two. This serious meditation on death retains a brooding, provocative sensibility in its meditation on death, so unlike the more popular pieces public works for which Mozart is generally known. This had the effect of reminding the audience that Mozart was no mere social entertainer, but a composer deeply in touch with the vagaries of our journey on earth.

The opening Allegro appears to record the initial excitement of mother and son exploring Paris. The following Adagio begins with a contemplative, transcendent meditation yet the ground beneath such devotion suddenly opens a door to reveal angst and despair, as dissonances accumulate with brooding terror. But Mozart suddenly reverses himself in the reverie of happy childhood memories of his mother. The nightmare persists in the concluding Presto but only as a background ghost that will accompany Mozart in the joyous journey of his life to come. This is the mystical experience of Christian resurrection in moving forward in the face of great sorrow. This was also the architectural prototype that many Romantic composers like Schubert and Chopin subsequently followed. The last time I heard this performed the second movement was played more softly and slowly in elegiac lament; Pålsson played not only with faster tempo, emphasizing the harshness of the dissonances with louder éclat, thus rendering a more anguished, even angry, pathos, so much so that one wondered if Mozart was about to end the work in that mode or undergo a nervous breakdown; this was dramatic and kept the audience on the edge of their seats in a most memorable manner. Mozart picked up the comic quirk of threatening to end a quartet before completing it from Haydn, yet Mozart re-created its use, for other reasons, in K. 156 and K. 590.

Such a deeply personal approach to a composition still retains its ability to shock, as most great art does. This was a rather bold and arresting approach to open a concert performance, yet a melancholy piece in a program works better in the forefront in order to stage a happier reversal at the conclusion of a program.

Schubert’s personal, even improvisational, Piano Sonata in D major, D. 959 creates an interesting link to the formal classical structure of a sonata yet moves well beyond that outer classicism to provide a new Romantic classic. The work is posthumous, Schubert’s penultimate sonata. The opening Allegro is rather frantic with chordal fanfare. The second movement Andantino in barcarole form provides haunting poignancy, a lament, before rushing into an intoxicating toccata. The leaping Scherzo with difficult hand-cross playing delivers intense suspense in a kind of carpe diem manner. Pålsson caught the vibrant humor of this movement like no one I have ever heard before. Erratic rhythms and ironic repetition offered giddy and impish humor that provided an ambience of delightful wit. The concluding movement, a rondo, is based upon the melody of Beethoven’s Sonata in G major, Op. 31 (the Waldstein sonata, as noted in the excellent printed program) where the melody is altered to offer new harmonies. An undercurrent of melancholy supplies dramatic contrast. As with Mozart, an arresting reversal offers the hope of present joy.

Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 by Ludwig von Beethoven, his last piano sonata, closed out the concert. Unusually, there are only two movements, the first being pessimistic, the second being optimistic. The intense turbulence of the first movement Classical Allegro remains jagged, tempestuous, angry, even shocking from the deaf composer, the Job of musicians roaring in contrapuntal mode. Pålsson injected a jazz cadenza in the movement as a segue away from anger which was where the movement was going—that jazz riff was both apt and wondrous. Likewise, the melancholy beauty of the Adagio cantabile, its simplicity and lightness, concludes with transcendent beauty that is as wondrously awesome as it is sublimely mystic. Beethoven’s finale appeared to summon the scene of waking from nightmare to the sound of gentle rain pattering on the roof and inviting the audience to indulge in a conditionally affirmative possibility for the near future, an ambiguous “Maybe,” as my friend Geoffrey, sitting next to me, whispered. Despite his plight in life as he approaches death, Beethoven remains life affirming! Words cannot do this justice: the music speaks with such emotion that our bodies shiver.

Pålsson has lively CD recordings of all these pieces. Many, perhaps rightly, dismiss recordings as pale shadows of performances. There is certainly something quite special at being there live in the moment of artistic creation. Live performances often induce the Theta-mind experience where the locus of inspired creation occurs.