22 October 2015

Unvarying Reticence

Variety is something we look for in any piano recital.  Last night German pianist Andreas Henkel offered a certain geographic variety in his programme at Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  There was music celebrating Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and Scotland.  True, all of the composers were German (Liszt might have been Hungarian by birth and his Rhapsodie espagnole actually written in Rome, but at heart he was firmly rooted in the German musical tradition) while Henkel himself showed his perception of “international” by listing his personal international credentials as comprising concerts in such varied cities as Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin and Munich.  Actually, a great many more cities in countries other than Germany were mentioned, but there was an unmistakably Germanic feel to the whole thing which went way beyond the repertory choice or the simple window-dressing of a biography.

Opening with Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue Henkel took a while to settle into the somewhat impersonal and unresponsive environment of the Conservatory’s Orchestra Hall and for a time, the Bach did not seem to know where it was heading.  Soon, however, it fell on its feet and started running with an assured purposefulness which revealed the greatest characteristic of Henkel’s playing; a lucid and fluent technique which came dramatically into its own in the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata.   The Bach, though, also revealed a certain interpretative unevenness which again surfaced more obviously later in the programme.  In the case of the Bach, there was never a convincing balance between stylistic credibility and interpretative licence.  When he was in strict, texturally precise and stylistically confident mode, Henkel delivered some truly outstanding Bach playing, but it was compromised by occasional bursts of romantic opulence and lavish tone colour.  The pedal – a contentious issue in Bach performances but one which, under the foot of a completely convincing interpreter, never prompts doubts – seemed obtrusive as much because vast tracts of dry, pedalless piano tone were countered by moments when the pedal went down and stayed down. 

Henkel’s transparency of tone created by a wonderfully balanced technique, abutting a seam of rich but almost reticent romanticism, perfectly suited the Beethoven.  Themes were drawn out with the clarity and focus of a high-powered telescope and the inner balance of the texture was so enticingly managed that this was an absolute joy to hear.  On top of that, Henkel’s supreme sense of the overall architecture of the Sonata resulted in a performance of rare cohesion.  It simply unfolded before our ears as if it were a delightful, interesting and wholly absorbing journey by the kind of trains Germany was once famous for; spotlessly clean and running exactly to time.  You knew where you were going and had no doubts that you would get there safely.

It was the three Mendelssohn pieces which showed up more than anywhere else Henkel’s somewhat uneasy grasp of interpretative nuance.  The Capriccio in A minor, as well as the Song Without Words in F sharp minor, were fluently executed and offered a fine glimpse of Henkel’s fluid and immaculately balanced fingerwork, but in the more restful and expressive Venetianisches Gondellied we were not so much gently caressing the waters of the Viennese canals, as thrust out into the Mediterranean and rocking queasily in a vast, swelling sea.  It lurched from bar to bar like a cartoon Rubato, and while Henkel drew the melody out wonderfully clearly from the texture, any singer attempting to sing the line would have ended up dazed and dizzy from the awkward manipulations of rhythm which passed here for romantic expressiveness.

Almost everything about the Liszt, however, was admirable.  Brilliantly delivered from a technical standpoint, it had a lovely sense of organisation and purpose, there was colour and expression and a certain Spanish flair.  Oddly, though, as with everything in the programme, Henkel held back from the ultimate demonstrative gesture.  Just as the Liszt neared the end, Henkel seemed to withdraw into his shell and the dynamic faded to end almost apologetically.  Just once, at the end of this recital, one wished he could have let his hair down enough to give us a true and powerful gesture of expression; it all seemed just a little too tightly reined in.

And what of Scotland?

An encore was offered (when, in a piano recital in Asia, is one ever not?) and, as Henkel explained, he was continuing the (German) tradition of presenting a “transcription”.  The “transcription” itself was of a Scottish melody, the Bunessan Tune which, in Scotland, certainly, is usually sung to the words “Child in a Manger” but Henkel, and many in the audience,  associate more with “Morning has Broken”.  Whatever.  It was not a transcription but a set of variations on a tune which, in all fairness, offers no real scope for variation; it is so firmly rooted in its tonality and its melodic shape that it is best left well alone.  Henkel superimposed a few pianistic gestures, ripples of arpeggios, fluid runs up and down the keyboard, but it never went anywhere or did anything.  It was a lot of effort over nothing.  But this encore did reveal what, possibly, was at the root of Henkel’s approach to performing.  A very obvious Christian faith seems to have persuaded him that personal display and self-aggrandisement is secondary to musical and personal sincerity.  All very good and commendable, but pianists need to be a little more extrovert, a little more egotistic, a little more open with their emotional involvement in the music if they are to be wholly convincing, and much as every moment of this recital was enjoyable, it had an overall sense of restraint and reticence which just blunted the sort of wide variety of moods many of us look for in a piano recital.

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