★★★★☆ An almost perfect evening of Germanic musical accomplishment.

Melbourne Recital Centre
July 25, 2016

The latest serving of international pianism in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Great Performers series saw three epochs of Germanic musical talent under one roof: two of the most important keyboard works in the Western classical canon – Bach’s glorious thesis on the power of musical invention, The Goldberg Variations, and Beethoven’s idiosyncratic late masterpiece, the Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor – performed by German pianist Lars Vogt.

Superficially, the aesthetic distance between Bach and Beethoven is vast, but these two pieces, rarely presented side-by-side, share some uncanny sympathies. Both pieces stand with their toes on the edge of a musical era; Bach, inching from the Baroque into the Classical, while Beethoven brazenly cannonballs from the Classical into the Romantic. Both explore the notion of thematic transformation, although Bach certainly trumps Beethoven in a straight-up contest of exhaustive reinvention. They share an abundance of ornamentation, albeit with quite different objectives. Bach’s meticulous notation of decorative flourishes in The Goldberg Variations is uncharacteristically assertive among other Baroque works, while Beethoven’s use of long trills in his Sonata reveal a nostalgic regression towards Classical formality after shirking such devices in his middle period works. Both pieces are also ferociously demanding. Bach’s variations, in particular, pose several knotty conundrums as to how a performer might successfully achieve the textural clarity of music conceived for a double-manual instrument when played on a present-day piano’s solitary keyboard. Beethoven’s technical rigours are rooted in the scope of its ambition, traversing the full range of the instrument, calling for seismic impact and airy restraint in close succession.

Despite these commonalities, these two pieces hail from very different musical mentalities and thus require a judicious effort to impress a contrasting character. For those pictorially minded, Bach could be likened to a draughtsman’s pen and ink; precise, disciplined, painstakingly executed. Beethoven, on the other hand, is like the thick, heavily expressive brushstrokes of an oil painting. Vogt’s interpretation of these two equally beautiful and yet distinct works fell somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, delivering playing of a superb calibre, but occasionally missing the decisive articulation to make it truly flawless.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with performing Bach with non-period sensibilities, after all, the modern piano, with it’s delicately engineered action and robust, sonorous tone, is not an instrument Bach would recognise. An appreciation of historically informed technique is no longer the preserve of early music pendants these days, and Vogt’s decision to adhere precisely to the prescribed number of repetitions called for by Bach (Vogt played from the score, presumably to be consummately accurate) was a very welcome choice. What does seem important, however, is that the music is well served by interpretative options, and some of the denser variations suffered from over-congestion in this performance. This might sound like nit-picking, and I suppose it is: this was an accomplished and sensitive account by a highly skilled musician that succeeded in many respects. Alas, when music making is so nearly perfect, as was the case here, it’s difficult not to be left with just a hint of disappointment, and the occasional blurring of Bach’s sharp-edged phrases, smeared by a rushed tempo or obscuring ornament, had that unfortunate effect.

Vogt’s Beethoven fared far better. Drawn with a wonderfully crafted line through the capricious shifts in personality, from stern solemnity to reflective calm and dancing exuberance, this was a performance of astute command and emotional awareness. The delicate, un-Beethovian final cadence, with its humble, distant resolution, quietly nestled among a repeating two-note motif, was brought off with unsentimentalised dignity. For a moment we joined Vogt in a breathless silence, as the quiet poignancy of the music held both pianist and audience rapt; proof that the highest compliment for a performer is not in fact eager applause, but an audience reluctant to break the spell of a sublimely placed double-barline.