A fabulous recital
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
Franz Schubert : Sonata in G Major, D. 894
Dmitri Shostakovich : 24 Preludes, opus 34 – Prelude and Fugue in D minor, opus 87 No. 24
Michail Lifits (piano)
M. Lifits (© Steven Cohen)
Michail Lifits belongs to a relatively new group of artists born in the former Soviet Union – in his case, Tashkent, Azerbaijan – but brought up and trained in the West. His parents settled in Germany and among Mr. Lifits’ mentors there are the well-known German piano pedagogues Kammerling and Goetzke, as well the Russian pianist Boris Petrushansky. Mr. Lifits has won some prestigious competitions, for example the Busoni (in Bolzano, Italy) and his name is now widely recognized in Europe. He also records for Decca, which has already released three of his albums. Selections from two of them were presented at his Carnegie Hall recital, which was also his debut at this venue. He is, alas, not yet well known in this country; my own previous experience with his art – and I mean art! – was hearing him several years ago at the New York Armory as a partner of the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang. At that time I was enormously impressed with the way he handled the piano parts – may I say the leading piano parts – in the Mozart Sonatas for Piano and Violin (often mistakenly called “violin sonatas”). Prior to his Weill Hall recital I had never heard Mr. Lifits play solo, though the reports from Europe were rightly ecstatic.
At Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall Lifits chose a program modeled along similar lines to, for instance, Sviatoslav Richter’s, who liked to devote his recitals to only one or two different composers. Here we heard one of the substantial 40-minute long Schubert sonatas – performed just a few weeks earlier by Ms. Uchida – followed by the 24 Preludes op. 34 by Shostakovich. Although we often hear fragments from Shostakovich’s other monumental cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87, the Op. 34 Preludes are seldom performed as a complete set. For the final work on the program Lifits chose the same composer’s grand Prelude and Fugue in D minor No.24 from Opus 87, which turned out to be a superb concluding piece that traces the development of Shostakovich’s piano writing from beginning to end.
Schubert’s Sonata in G major used to be referred as Sonata-Fantasia and in the early editions its four movements were listed separately. But this was only a publisher’s ruse to make more money on four separate pieces rather than just one sonata. Nothing could be more wrong than to separate the movements. They not only belong together, but the last two possess a rare thematic unity. The interpretive task in the atmospheric, calm and serene first movement is to keep the pulse of music unchanged even when the faster notes replace the slower-moving triplets. I always appreciate when those quicker sixteenths still retain a more melodic character. In Mr. Lifits’ interpretation, unlike that of his predecessor Ms. Uchida, they sometimes were just less singing and there was perhaps a bit less tempo flexibility. Yet Mr. Lifits’ playing was subtle, delicate and masterly in the treatment of the dramatic material in the development section. I am certain that if he were a string player he would treat certain detached notes or chords in a more string up-bow playing manner; I wished he had tried to imitate this on the piano. (That particular effect was more apparent in Ms. Uchida’s version of a few weeks ago.) I liked the utter simplicity of the Andante movement and the tenderness of the outer parts. Even in the outbursts of its middle section – and before that in the similar dramatic moments of the opening Molto moderato – one never heard harshness in the piano sound which all through was cushioned. There was nothing to disapprove of in the Minuetto with its long-short-short-short short motif which Schubert would use later in his Piano Trio in E-flat. Here we had a nice bouncing rhythm and articulation, not to mention the heavenly tenderness of the Trio section: a disarmingly simple, innocent, childlike melody with hesitant major-minor changes which just grab one’s heart.
One admired Mr. Lifits’ handling of the Finale. Rondo: Allegretto again with a similar albeit inverted rhythmic figure to the one we just heard in the third movement. Here, as in several other piano works, Schubert also relies on another rhythmic pattern: long short-short long long which nicely bounces in the left hand while the right has to wrestle the difficult, not really pianistic, figurations. Lifits did it all with delicacy, precision, subtlety and refinement. The sparkling melody lines were finely etched and deftly handled.
The second part of the recital was devoted to Shostakovich and his set of 24 Preludes, which, it seems to me, are performed more often, though only a few a times, in a violin and piano transcription by the Russian violinist Tsyganov. I wondered if this set composed in 1933 was indeed Shostakovich’s response to previous sets by Chopin, Debussy, even Scriabin, or to Prokofiev’s Vision fugitives, all of which Shostakovich might have known. The composer uses the same structure in the Opus 34 set as Chopin used for his 24 Preludes opus 28: a prelude in a major key followed by one in the parallel minor. The Shostakovich miniatures, some as short as twenty-some seconds – the longest just two minutes – offer a multitude of idioms and moods. Some are pompous, some are pure romantic melody, almost a tribute to Chopin with only minimally dissonant harmony. The one in E-minor No. 4, in the form of a fugue, reminded us of a grotesque dance. Prelude No. 5 in D major has fast-running figurations all over the keyboard that foreshadow the last movement of the yet to be written Sonata for Cello and Piano. It was a treat to hear all of them at once, though one can understand that some pianists would shy away from playing the whole set.
The very different Prelude and Fugue in D minor opus 87 No. 24 is a huge 11-minute, intricate composition with recurring themes in both the prelude and the fugue whose sonorities bring to mind the climate of later symphonic works such as the Symphony No. 10. Both of the scores, Opus 34 and Opus 87, received first-rate performances. (I would say Opus 34 came close to being a model interpretation). In Shostakovich, to an even greater degree than in Schubert, Mr. Lifits demonstrated impressive tonal control and elegance. Just as the composer drastically changes the air and expression of each prelude, the pianist was able to tease and to puzzle his listener from one moment to another. Throughout the set he demonstrated an astonishing variety and subtlety of touch and articulation. One also had to admire the mastery of his handling of the polyphony of the last D minor fugue and its organ-like sonorities.
Two encores completed the program, a virtuosic yet elegantly played Kreisler-Rachmaninov Liebeslied and a beautifully handled Chopin Nocturne in C-sharp minor Op. posthumous.
It was a fabulous recital and one has only to hope that this enormously talented and skilled pianist will return here soon. The standing ovation that he received at the end was fully justified and well earned.