Sergio Tiempo at Queen Elizabeth Hall
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre
March 15th , 2011
Franz Liszt – Three Pieces from Les Années de pèlerinage
Sonetto 47 del Petrarca
Sonetto 104 del Petrarca
Sonetto 123 del Petrarca
Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op.27 No.2 (Quasi una fantasia – Moonlight)
Fryderyk Chopin – Études
Etude in C, Op.10 no.1
Etude in C sharp minor, Op.25 no.7
Etude in G sharp minor, Op.25 no.6
Etude in C minor, Op.10 no.12
Etude in C minor, Op.25 no.12
Maurice Ravel – Gaspard de la nuit
Franz Liszt – Two Pieces
Consolation No.3 in D flat
Mephisto Waltz no.1
Sergio Tiempo, piano
As usual for me, this was a concert I chose for the repertoire rather than the performer – three of my favourite composers and one (Liszt) I want to investigate further. It’s always been pretty much just about the music(, man…), a philosophy I’d like to outgrow. There’s not many ‘artistes’ in classical music that I feel either enthused or knowledgeable enough about to call myself a fan of yet, but one exception is Martha Argerich, who has consistently championed Sergio Tiempo and regularly performs with him. Based on this knowledge and what I’d gathered about him from reading snippets here and there, I went into his debut Southbank performance, part of their International Piano Series, with hopes that he had some of the mercuriality and fire that I love in Argerich.
Looking very youthful for a man of nearly forty, with his curly locks and slightly shy demeanour, he opened with three of the short pieces that make up Années de pèlerinages, suites inspired by Liszt’s travels to foreign countries, some of his favourite literature – in this case sonnets by Petrarch, but mostly the Romantics of his own generation, as might be surmised from the ardent musical style, which Tiempo seemed to relish. It was a quietly captivating start to the evening, marred only by what appeared to be someone in the front row occasionally singing along – on which, more later…
Not too surprisingly, Tiempo chose not to break the mood by leaving gaps for applause between these closely related pieces, but I found his decision to plunge without pause into the Moonlight Sonata somewhat odd. Perhaps he had in mind Liszt’s description of the Moonlight (‘a flower between two chasms’) as a mental connection linking what could be seen as two sets of three short pieces, but to combine them into an unbroken six-movement structure was musically jarring. He veered from a determinedly unsentimental first movement, relatively fast and not especially pianissimo, but with the melody very well articulated, to an oddly bombastic “flower” that seemed like a parody of a hypothetical anachronistically Romantic performance. There were a couple of small mistakes in the last movement, perhaps due to the very fast tempo adopted, but more damaging was Tiempo’s consistent slowing at cadences, unwinding the incredible tension Beethoven creates. Overall, I think this was probably the least successful performance of the evening.
With Tiempo finally stopping to take a bow here, the audience were by this point so desperate to applaud that they kept it up even as far as a few notes into the first Chopin étude. Other than the Revolutionary Étude (Op. 10, no. 12), I don’t know these pieces as well as I do Chopin’s nocturnes, preludes and sonatas, but I do feel confident in saying that this section was a highlight of the concert, Tiempo imbuing all six études (he slipped in an extra one after the Revolutionary – . 10 no. 10 in A flat, according to my friend who accompanied me) with a defiant spirit that never interfered with the technical challenge of extracting the melodies from amongst the keyboard-spanning flurries of notes. We also got at this point an intermittent reccurrence of the aforementioned vocalisations; by now I was on the ball enough to realise with disbelief that this was actually Tiempo himself, singing along to his own playing à la Gould, but much louder. This proved quite amusing at an especially heroic climax in the final étude, but I have to admit that generally I found it a bit annoying – and I’m a Gould fan. Perhaps volume is the key.
The second half of the concert opened, like the first, with a piece with literary origins – Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, one of the most legendarily difficult of all piano works, based on three poems by Aloysius Bertrand. The outer movements, “Ondine” and “Scarbo”, depicting a water nymph and a malignant goblin respectively, were the best, as vivid as this extremely visual piece demands, while I found “Le gibet” to be just slightly lacking the full horror of a body swinging from a gallows. I’d listened beforehand via the Southbank Centre website to an excerpt of Tiempo’s recording of “Scarbo” and found it too light, a mischievous imp rather than a devilish hobgoblin. In concert he went for a more traditional interpretation, I think much to the better for the sake of balance with the other movements.
Having said that I’d like to know Liszt’s work better, the final two pieces of the advertised programme unfortunately did little to validate that desire. I found them to be both quite banal, with the Consolation seeming to be a bland imitation of the opening to the Chopin nocturne in the same key, and the first Mephisto Waltz lacking in much thematic content under the surface bluster. In terms of performance, Tiempo seemed to respond better to the variety of texture and dynamics in the longer second piece, which did make a fairly effective climax to the concert in an obvious barnstorming sort of way.
However, much better was still to come. After taking two bows, Tiempo returned to the piano stool and, after much apparent deliberation over what to play, opted for Chopin’s Nocturne in F as his one encore. For me it was his best playing of the night, totally free of any distracting or inappropriate mannerisms, with a beautiful tone and, unlike most of the rest of the concert, great sensitivity to the final release of the sustaining pedal. It was also a very canny choice as a strong contrast to the Liszt, and not for the first time that evening I wondered afterwards how calculated Tiempo’s seemingly spontaneous image might really be. Yet the fact that his most convincing performances of the night were in the wholeheartedly Romantic repertoire perhaps suggests that, at least in a live context, he genuinely does delight in off-the-cuff invention and risk-taking, an admirable quality that one can understand someone like Martha Argerich appreciating. I don’t think his ideas always come off, but it’s nevertheless a rewarding experience to see them executed, and one I would strongly recommend to those appreciative of that kind of musicianship.