Thursday, February 15, 2007

Doff your headgear gentlemen!

Recital rooms too often these days seem to be comfort stations. But the piano recital given by Stefan Cassomenos on 30 January in the salon of 22 Mansfield Street, home of Mr. and Mrs. Boas, was something else; alive, passionate, dramatic as well as technically perfect. We in the audience were bonded, stirred and shaken. At one point the pianist mopped the keys; perspiration no doubt. But it could have been blood, it was playing as if the pianist's life depended on it.

It was a welcome change that the Haydn Sonata was not the usual (marvellous, mind you) E flat but no.26 in A flat, unusual features being the slow movement that begins with the left hand only – unique in Haydn's output? - and one movement that seems to have a mordent in every bar. A red-frocked priest sitting nearby was heard to pronounce it a romantic reading; none the worse for that. Then followed Liszt's rarely heard amazing study in dynamic lugubricity, Funérailles. The pianist gave it dark sonorities and tremendous climaxes. Cassomenos is Greek born, Australian bred; the last time I heard him play, he was playing on the first desk of violins in a Melbourne Youth Orchestra (strings) in a tiny village called Crottens, 30 miles north of Toulon (he also composes and has just had his twenty-second birthday).

There followed Chopin’s B minor Scherzo. Schumann was baffled by a scherzo that did not live up to its definition "How are seriousness and gravity to be clothed, if jest is to go about in such dark-coloured garments?" Cassemenos turned down the lights even- further: recall that chorale passage interrupted by high up tinklings: this pianist made the chorale a launch-pad for the high-up tinklings which here became menacing shards of light. The Australian composer Gordon Kerry's Figured in the Drift of Stars, on a first hearing, seemed to lack continuity, various pianistic devices, less a drift than a meander towards the nearest billabong.

The evening ended with Prokofiev's Sonata No.6, a performance that evoked a reminiscence of the composer, “he never entered a room if he could smash a window to get in”. The ageing composer had lost his youthful looks by the time of World War II but his music recalled the blond youth who combined charismatic charm with a tendency to behave often like a bull in a china shop. The performance lacked nothing of the brutality of much of the work, its restless force, the balletic scherzo with touches of magic and orange fruitfulness, the tender corniness of the slow movement’s waltzing, and the stabbing grimness of the finale.

The recital took place in an elegant, Adam-ceilinged music room, played on a (I guess) six-foot-eight Steinway that had been recently tended and tweaked by the Hamburg master technician Ulrich Gerhard from the revered old firm. After Cassemenos's never reticent onslaught it may need a tuning. This was a prodigious London debut by a formidable talent; yes, he could have turned down the volume a bit, and just occasionally he hurried; otherwise I think that Joseph, Franz, Fredéric and Sergey (listening upstairs) would have been satisfied and nodded approval.

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