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More from Verbier: 10 pianists, 4 pianos, 2 rarities - Michael Church [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Michael Church

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More from Verbier: 10 pianists, 4 pianos, 2 rarities [Jul. 29th, 2009|12:13 pm]
Michael Church
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I never heard the Cypriot pianist Nicolas Economou, killed aged 40 in a car crash in 1993, but I’d heard about him. Friedrich Durrenmatt, Maximilian Schell, Arthur Miller, and Volker Schlondorff were among his (for a musician unexpected) friends; Martha Argerich, with whom he played chamber music, described him as a creature of outstanding intelligence, with a spirit at once warm, fastidious, and fantastical. He studied in Moscow, settled in Germany, but always championed the arts of his native island; he composed and conducted, wrote philosophical essays and poetry, and was constantly pushing out the boundaries of what his instrument could achieve; improvising with Chick Corea led to a CD, On Two Pianos, where he and the American jazzer interacted fruitfully.

Two years ago a previously unknown manuscript turned up in his still incompletely-excavated archive, and at Verbier we heard it: Vivaldi’s "Le Quattro Stagioni" arranged for four pianos. Well, why not? Almost everything imaginable has been done with this work - 600 different versions to date, including a tango one by Gidon Kremer - and though four boxes of hammers are about as far as you could get from the original bowed strings, it ought at least to be interesting.

And it certainly was. "Spring" came clad in pearlised high cascades, and bewitched and exhilarated us. "Summer" opened with a great stillness, which dissolved into a riot of bustling percussive activity; a breath of wind gave way to a raging tempest, with every effect in the pianistic book being pressed into service. And if the massed pianos failed to convey the grating cruelty of Vivaldi’s winter blasts, they did set up a series of magical atmospheres, much enhanced by the way the four Steinways were arranged in a circumambient square. A curiously faithful translation - and at the same time a completely new work. It should be heard again, though - given the complication of hiring and transporting four such beasts - I’m not sure where.

Here, led by that supreme chamber-player Manny Ax, its presentation was quintessentially Verbieresque: Yuja Wang and Alessio Bax were the other constants, with the fourth position being occupied by a different player for each season. For this game of musical chairs, Argerich, Kissin, and the other grandees stood back to let the next generation shine: no surprise that 21-year-old Yuja Wang should leave the most indelible impression, both through her pianism and her exquisite person. This Curtis Institute-trained Chinese, whose Chopin, Scriabin, and Ligeti disc I praised in May, is without doubt the next big star in the pianistic firmament: watch out for the flurry on the net, the ecstatic print and video profiles. I predict ten heady years, before maturity presents her with challenges of a different sort. Nobody can trade on youth for ever.

If this arrangement was a rarity, the four-piano work by Milhaud which preceded it was scarcely less so. "Paris suite pour quatre mains" was his excited response to the sounds he heard from his window, and the six pieces moving from Montmartre to the Tour Eiffel had an infectiously urban gusto; hardly a masterpiece, but definitely worth an airing. The same applies to the four-piano treatment of ‘Carmen’ which Mack Wilberg wrote for the Los Angeles Piano Quartet, and which rounded off this evening: an oblique, wrong-note, spookily negative image of Bizet’s all too familiar music.

The other big mid-festival event was Thomas Quasthoff’s recital of Schubert’s "Die Schone Mullerin" with Emanuel Ax at the piano. There has recently been some muttering about Quasthoff being in vocal decline - that his voice is no longer "supported" as it should be. No hint here of any such problem: he projected comfortably to every corner of Verbier’s substantial church, with the drama as poignant as one could wish. Interviewing him for the Independent on Sunday last winter, I got the full measure of his heroism; why his shockingly candid autobiography The Voice remains unpublished in Britain, despite its success in America, is a mystery. What are the publishers waiting for? He’s still in his prime, so get it out now.
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