It’s fair to say that Orli Shaham is equally at home in the classical or the contemporary repertoire. A noted exponent of modern American composers like John Adams, she’s also a fine Bach interpreter, and in recent years has acquired a reputation for her playing of the late piano music of Johannes Brahms, thanks in part to the double CD Bach Inspired on Canary Classics that received a very warm welcome a couple of years ago in Limelight. Of course, nothing beats a live performance, and two years on Shaham’s interpretations are even finer, benefitting from a sense of communion with composer and audience, and a definite ‘lived in’ quality that is inevitably hard to capture on disc.
Shaham’s theory is that by interrogating a composer’s influential predecessors and throwing in 21st-century interpretations by a handful of today’s musical luminaries, an audience is granted an opportunity to eavesdrop on whispered conversations – composer to composer, as it were – across the centuries. And, as this smartly conceived, intelligently conveyed recital proves, it works. Beginning her odyssey with Bach – for Brahms, the most revered of the ‘ancients’ – Shaham proceeded by way of the great Op. 118 and Op. 119 works to recent music by Israeli composer Avner Dorman and our own Brett Dean in an illuminating recital that appealed in equal measure to both head and heart.
Bach’s final French Suite was an ideal starting point. Shaham has a winning way with Bach, enjoying his sunnier side, indulging in a little more rubato than, say, a Perahia, and a little more weight than, say, a Hewitt. In other words, Bach as Brahms might have understood him. Little stabs of electricity drove her perky Courante. The Sarabande was immaculately decorated, the Gavotte elegant, the Bourée shapely, leading up to a bold and lively concluding Menuet. All in all, the perfect amuse-bouche to the meaty Brahmsian main course.
Shaham’s response to Brahms is considered and thoughtful, yet in equal measure passionate, and nowhere more so than in the first of the Op. 118 pieces where she rode the scalic peaks and troughs with an impressive weight and daring before pulling back for the more peaceful, though poignant, second Intermezzo. Despite Brahms’ noted rejection of the programmatic, Shaham played the convincing storyteller in the dramatic Ballade, ditto the sometimes elusive Intermezzo No 4. She handled the Romance with an exquisite Bachian grace – her earlier French Suite flagging a clear nod backwards here – but the best was saved for last. Shaham’s probing exploration of the brooding final Intermezzo with its desperately plucky central section was deeply intuited and intensely realised, leaving her audience utterly bereft at Brahms’ ‘oh, so sad’ final cadence.
Dorman’s After Brahms opened the second half, a trio of pieces rich in Brahmsian allusions. Having heard Asher Fisch conduct the SSO in the orchestrated versions of these works earlier in the year, it was nice to return to the rather more cohesive and astringent originals. Shaham has Dorman’s tricky musical shards comfortably beneath her fingers and the opening Allegro, with its dynamic cascading chords that descend to the very depths of the piano was dispatched with deceptive ease. The beauty of the Delicatamente con molto espressione prefigured Satie (with a romantically pulsating interior), while in the empty and discordant final Adagio espressivo, Shaham captured something of the loneliness of the closeted and aging Brahms.
The mighty Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119 were the fitting conclusion to the recital, but here interspersed with Brett Dean’s crystalline Hommage à Brahms. The seven pieces in total were essentially the proof of Shaham’s pudding, the Dean miniatures reflecting and casting the Brahms into an intriguing and new light – a bit like the musical equivalent of re-examining a diamond from a slightly different angle. The opening Intermezzo – Clara Schumann’s famous “grey pearl” – received a marvellously nostalgic reading before the fluttering angels’ wings of Dean’s first Engelsflügel conjured a vista as bleak as Breughel, and again grey, grey, grey. Brahms’ second Intermezzo proceded to chug across this landscape before arriving at a familiar hearth and chugging off once more. Coming to a jarring halt, Dean’s nightmarish vision of the jobbing Brahms’ youthful exploits on a dockside brothel piano broke into the faux jollity of the third Intermezzo before the graveyard skitterings of Dean’s second Engelsflügel were thoroughly punctured by the defiant grandeur and optimism of the final resolute Rhapsodie.
Needless to say, Shaham was on top of, and inside, the respective idioms of both Brahms and Dean. With top marks for originality and execution, her engaging storytelling – both as a musician and as a bright personality behind a microphone – drew the listener on a compelling, multi-dimensional odyssey, sending her audience into the night with all sorts of ideas bouncing around in its collective head.