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Any ‘umbrella of tranquillity’ in a storm

In the first of the Great Artist Series, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Colombo, acclaimed French pianist Jean-Bernard Pommier performed three meisterwerk sonatas to a sell-out Goethe-Institut crowd.

Mozart’s Sonata in D Major is a lightish confection, perhaps slightly more icing than cake, from an era when pianos were still quite piano and you didn’t need a 15” hand-span to play the big numbers. The piece, written in the composer’s relative maturity, is also, in itself, quite scaled back, and Pommier played it, such as is possible, according to the manner of the day (i.e. feet nowhere near the pedals).

It was a consummate rendition, neither metronomic (contra my boyhood piano teacher) nor excessively flamboyant, and as a thunderstorm opened up outside the alternate turns of vibrancy and quietude preserved us under the umbrella of tranquillity.

Not so with the ‘Appassionata’ (Sonata no. 23 in F minor). Even Beethoven reckoned this monumental and heroic piece to be one of his best works – and it is PDG. From the noble, march-like principal tune to the pounding of the keys (NB appassionata not to be attempted on first dates) and the trilling in the ivory stratosphere, Beethoven gave his full, brawling, elemental mad-browed might to the storm now raging outside. As the thunderclaps landed bang on the chords, it ceased to be clear who was providing whom with the ‘rolling accompaniment’. In Pommier’s fade-to-pianissimo ‘Allegro assai’ I scribbled: ‘the two avenging soldiers fall together in the rainstorm, lie on their backs looking up at the clearing skies, and, finally, rest in peace.’

That said – and perhaps it was the hour-glass shape of the venue, or just where I was sitting – what I had taken as the pianist’s exemplary restraint in the Mozart now seemed just a touch too cool. By the end of the ‘allegro ma non troppo’ Pommier could (should?) have been hitting the piano with a sledgehammer – but wasn’t. No matter: the piece still rightly got a standing ovation.

It is hard to believe that Liszt’s Sonata in B minor is separated from the ‘Appassionata’ by only fifty years. But both indicative and evocative of the particular brand of untrammelled Romantic genius that Liszt typified, the pedal (the important one) was down and everything was going full whack (everything except the nicely atmospheric storm, of course, which had passed without so much as a by-your-leave).

Huge – almost symphonic – in scope, and incorporating, in its massive single movement, touches of Puccini, Wagner, Mendelssohn, even Gershwin, the virtuosic B minor seems to condense not only the whole orchestra into two hands, but the whole of C.19th musical history – half of which hadn’t even happened yet.

Needless to say, this is a ridiculously difficult piece, even by the standards of the international star circuit. Simply daring to play it is half the show (just reading the sheet music is a challenge beyond all but the most battle-hardened pianists), and it was amazing to see it done with such gliding dexterity – not least from a man with the physique of a Welsh baritone/shot-putter.

There’s something slightly frantic and Tom-and-Jerryish about Liszt’s virtuosity, though. Jerry hits Tom with frying pan (crash), Tom sees stars (twinkle twinkle), Tom trudges home, tail dragging on the ground (minor slow bit), Tom plots revenge (low growls), Tom sets trap (short mischievous bursts), Jerry comes sauntering along (ominous crescendo), then start again in the next episode.

To accuse Liszt of pure stunt-making would be harsh; but there are moments when extreme showmanship can make a piece seem… less profound… than perhaps it actually is. It’s like, say, Thomas Pynchon novels: colossal, not frankly 100% convincing, and more beloved of the critics than of the broader literate populace (who prefer Dickens). The B minor is, undeniably, a showstopper. But personally I’d have closed with the more satisfying Beethoven.

Pommier, inevitably, wasn’t let off before the audience had extorted two encores: a trifling little central-European dance number that he played with almost dismissive effortlessness; then a shameless and totally brilliant rendition of Chopin’s Minute Waltz, so fast it ought to have been renamed. Genuinely impossible, without sight of the keyboard, to ‘see’ how this could be played by human hands.

Jean-Bernard Pommier and CMSC chief Lakshman Joseph de Saram are discussing launching an appeal for a concert grand, in readiness for the opening of the new National Performing Arts Theatre. This is a tremendous idea that deserves support (please direct cash donations to me c/o The Sunday Times – in unmarked, non-sequential bills – and I’ll see that it gets to the right place).

Nor – I hasten to add – was it ill grace that prompted Pommier to comment, gently, on the Goethe’s piano. It’s not concert standard, is all (basically, there are a couple of strings missing, but it’s also not sufficiently tuned), and in a national capital, with visiting musicians of Pommier’s calibre, that’s a poor show.

Published version – incl. minor abridgements – here.

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