Playing the music of Franz Liszt, who was born in this month 200 years ago, usually gives a pianist free rein to indulge his inner keyboard wild man.
And yet Guillaume Vincent, who was born only 20 years ago Sunday, brought to his reading of Liszt’s epic B minor Sonata qualities such as introspection, deliberateness and mystery, casting this showpiece in an unfamiliar but rewarding light.
Vincent, a 2009 piano laureate of France’s prestigious Long-Thibaud Competition, appeared Sunday night at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach as part of a short United States tour backed by the Alliance Française. He and the audience were treated to birthday wine and cake after the recital, which also featured music of Beethoven and Brahms as well as the Liszt sonata.
Vincent is a pianist of exceptional control, a player whose command of the keyboard is so thorough as to be virtually spotless. Each of his musical and even his physical gestures appear to be precisely thought out; his hands were dancers in a ballet, choreographed to fall on the keys just-so, or to unfold at the head of an arm making its way in slow motion to the terminal B of the Liszt, where the note was crisply snapped off.
Sunday night’s program opened with the Sonata No. 13 (in E-flat, Op. 27, No. 1) of Beethoven, one of two fantasy-sonatas in this opus, the other one being the Moonlight. Vincent chose a somewhat down-tempo approach, a very soft dynamic, and in addition played the theme with legato stresses rather than staccato, making for a most unusual effect, and one quite unlike the cheerful walk-in-the-country feeling this music often gets.
But his point was to imprint the theme in the memory so we could hear what Beethoven does with it, and in that, it was effective. The contrast of the beginning with the C major variant that follows it was the more striking for taking place in such a hushed environment, and Vincent played it with ease. The second-movement three-beat scherzo was also rather slower than it needed to be, and while it moved along attractively, it could have used some more Beethovenian shock, a stronger sense of surprise, to make it stand out.
As it was, it fed logically into the slow movement proper, where Vincent seemed most at home, letting the Italianate melody sing, and taking a long, languid stroll through the cadenza-style figures. The finale was bubbly and charming, and the rhythm rock-steady, though again a shade too soft for much of the movement. What you had by the end was a highly original reading of this work in which a long, deliberate arc of time was responsible for its musical shape, no matter what the individual movements contributed. Things seemed to happen in friezes rather than in narrative, which was not always persuasive, but certainly very memorable, and almost faultlessly played.
That same huge line of argument was used to knit together the six pieces of the Op. 118 Klavierstücke of Johannes Brahms, late music in which the composer’s gifts of melody and quirks of rhythm are we to a slightly more adventurous harmonic palette that Vincent made certain to emphasize.
The first Intermezzo (in C) is marked molto appassionato, but Vincent’s interpretation had little of that, continuing the same kind of relaxed, untroubled motion prevalent in much of the Beethoven. The second Intermezzo (in A) benefited from that approach, coming off delicately beautiful and extraordinarily tender, with a bit more color in the minor-key contrasting section (particularly in the repeat, when the inner voice suddenly came out), and a richness to the key-shifting chords of the transition that suggested Debussy’s Cathédrale Engloutie.
The bluff opening section of the Ballade (in G minor) was tightly reined in, but its contrasting section was full of slithery wit, smartly played, and the succeeding Intermezzo (in F minor) had much of the same, with Vincent pointing up the spiky leaps in both hands. The Romanze (in F) was perhaps best of all, with a lovely tone and prominent inner voices in the main section and an marvelously otherworldly middle section, all trills and whispers, that made a striking impact.
The barely moving melody of the closing Intermezzo (in E-flat minor) gave Vincent another opportunity to demonstrate his skill at sotto voce dynamics and mood setting, and he barely disturbed the mystery in the martial motifs at the climax. Like the Beethoven, it was soft-spoken, highly etched playing that held its audience to close attention.
After the intermission, the concert closed with the Liszt sonata. There was no question about Vincent’s ability to play this piece with thorough technical polish, and not a bar seemed beyond him. But he also eschewed any chance to rattle bones and rafters in the more extravagant pages of this one-movement compendium of Liszt’s performance art. He began (and ended) the work with a glacially slow traversal of descending notes and tiny bursts of low chords, and when it came time to present the motto on which the whole work is based, he did it with an offhand sort of dryness that was antiseptically clear and also indicative of the kind of casual ad lib that might have led Liszt down this particular compositional trail.
This was a Liszt of muted grandeur, even though Vincent did unleash some considerable firepower in the bigger climaxes, of exceptionally soft playing, and of crystalline fingerwork. Because Liszt wasn’t trying to write a Haydn-style sonata with a traditional narrative format, this is music that can sound patchy and incomplete if the pianist doesn’t make sure to bring his most flamboyant interpretation to bear.
But Vincent did something different here, and made it work. This was among the most controlled, sealed-off readings of the piece I’ve heard, and while it might not have conformed to the ebullient Romanticism audiences expect from Liszt, in its reverent attitude and thorough understanding of every bar, it was most distinctive.
All of which made the encore, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, even more surprising. Here, Vincent entered much more into the usual Liszt spirit, with a rambunctious opening, a demonstrative lassan section, and a high-spirited friska in which Vincent’s octaves were played with tireless, exemplary precision. It was a delightful ending, and offered welcome lightness after the great seriousness of the formal program.
Guillaume Vincent is a very fine pianist with an original mind, whose tremendous technique is so ably deployed that the listener is never aware of the gigantic difficulties of the music he is playing. His interpretations Sunday night were quite out of the ordinary, and remarkably absorbing. But there is such a thing as too much control, and I don’t think Vincent’s overall conceptions would have been significantly altered had he brought some more vibrant colors to the pieces on his program. The sparkle he brought to his encore showed that he has no shortage of ability to do so, and one hopes to hear him expand his textures somewhat on the next hearing, and show just how complete a musician he can be.