Czech him out

May 13, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The second of this year’s four part series ‘Pianists in Recital’ brought a return to Australia of 28-year-old Czech pianist, Lukas Vondracek. And what a return is was, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Lukas Vondracek

Lukas Vondracek

If ever a young pianist is marked for greatness, Vondracek is. His technique is dazzling and his understanding of the music profound. He crouches over the keyboard as a cat might over a mouse, pouncing with ferocity on a chord or reaching out with a caress. I have never heard better staccato, or more accurate leaps. But this was not technique for its own sake. It all served the music: Haydn’s piano sonata in C major Hob.XV1:50, Prokofiev’s sonata  No. 7 Op.83 (the second of the three war sonatas) and Brahms Klavierstucke piano pieces Op.118.

The original printed program also included Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a theme of Corelli, but arrivees were given a revised program page in which it had mysteriously disappeared. In an Einsteinian twist, 22 minutes had been snipped off the program but had only reduced the stated finishing time by five minutes. A more plebeian explanation is that somebody’s calculator was low on battery, but no worry, the shortened program was still a joy.

The Haydn is an old favourite, especially in piano competitions where even playing, clarity and mobility are the main goals. Vondracek delivered the piece’s lightness and humour to perfection. Even without the grandeur that was to come, it was obvious that Vondracek had a sound of his own, almost the equivalent of handing out 3D glasses for the ears. I tried to fathom it and concluded that it came from very economical use of the sustaining pedal and a practice of removing fingers quickly from keys once they had been struck. This is not to say he lacked legato. Rather he deeply appreciated the difference between the two and cleared the sound spectrum of the mud that can detract from even the best playing.

I was surprised to find that the Prokofiev sonata had been repositioned in the middle of the program, but at least the pianist could catch his breath and rest his hands in cooling water during interval; such are the demands of this piece. We are not halfway through the year, yet Sydney audiences have had at least two number sixes and one number seven wars to stir them – from three extraordinary pianists. Incidentally the late, legendary Soviet pianist, Sviatoslav Richter, took a fancy to the bristlingly difficult seventh sonata immediately after Prokofiev had composed it. When Richter got hold of the music he learned it in four days.

Vondracek’s interpretation was simply breathtaking, yet he never seemed in danger of losing control of it, even through ferociously repeating notes and chords smashing against one another. The only respite came in the Andante middle movement where the baseline of gorgeous tenths laid a tranquil path between manic outbursts.

And so to Brahms whose Klavierstucke pieces, written towards the end of his life, are among his finest works for solo piano. While they are big in concept they often pause and ponder romance and serenity before retuning to sounds and harmonies of grand dimensions.

Although I’d been enchanted by Vondracek’s playing in the first half of the program, his Brahms was my favourite. He moved the piano out of its percussive role into painting orchestral colours. There were many opportunities for him to demonstrate his gift of playing pianissimo and it being heard at the back of the hall. Again I pondered how it did it and came to the conclusion that either side of those soft notes he planted a millisecond of silence, drawing the ear of the listener out to search.

If you missed this superb recital, you can pick up Vondracek playing the pieces on record – along with the Corelli Variations, unless a time warp has zapped them too.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.


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