Peter Jablonski’s contribution to the Southbank Centre’s ongoing International Piano Series was an unusual mixture of music from nineteenth-century Europe and twentieth-century America, featuring works by Liszt, Grieg, Gershwin, Copland and Barber.
The first half was all moody nineteenth-century romanticism, with ‘ballades’ by Liszt and Grieg. Chopin is credited with ‘inventing’ this form, inspired by a literary model, and it became a popular non-vocal choice for composers who followed him. Chopin’s ballades have no specific narrative, leaving the listener to form his or her own ‘story’ from the music, but Liszt’s Ballade no. 2 in B minor, a large-scale work which shares the same key as his piano sonata completed at the same time, draws its ‘story’ from the poem Leonore by Gottfried August Bürger, a tale of lovers separated by war, mistaken identity, the arrival of a mysterious stranger, a dashing moonlit horse ride, a cemetery and the transformation of the stranger into Death. Plenty of material, then, for an emotionally wide-ranging work of operatic grandeur and shifting moods and soundscapes.
Peter Jablonski rose to the challenge with dark, stormy rumblings in the bass offset against a serene hymn-like melody and clusters of chords high in the treble. His precise playing was colourful and energetic, though at times it seemed a little too controlled for this music, as if the galloping horse was being reined in.
In Grieg’s Ballade, which takes the form of a theme and variations based on a Norwegian folk melody, he seemed more at ease, offering moments of wistful and soulful lyricism, and highlighting lilting folksy idioms throughout.
The second half, after some fairly involved piano maintenance during the interval (the technician received a round of applause for his efforts), transported us to 1920s New York, with Gershwin’s Three Preludes. Jablonski’s evident enjoyment of this music was apparent from the opening motif of the first piece, an angular five-note blues figure on which virtually all of the rest of the material is based, which he played with an extrovert vigour. The syncopated rhythm in the left hand, based on a Brazilian baião, was racy and exotic, and the whole piece, which lasted all of a few minutes (Jablonski opted for a cranked-up tempo), was full of laid-back humour.
The middle Prelude, in complete contrast, is sombre and melancholy. A subdued, swinging melody, redolent of ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess, winds its way over a repetitive bass line. Gershwin called it ‘a blues lullaby’, though in Jablonksi’s hands, a more lively tempo suggested the end of an evening in a smoky jazz club, a few couples smooching on the dance floor.
More high-spirits and humour in the final Prelude, with its more distinct Spanish flavour, pulled off like the first with a relaxed bravura, before the warm, if a little saccharine Embraceable You, a piece which must have raised the spirits of a profoundly depressed New York populace in 1930, and an erotic and languorous Piano Blues by Aaron Copland, which lived up to its title ‘Muted and Sensuous’ in its winsome melodic line and improvisatory character, as if the music were taking shape at the keyboard, there and then.
The final piece of the evening, Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, Op. 26, referred back to both the Liszt of the first half, with its bass rumblings and arresting lyricism, and to Gershwin in its syncopated rhythms and jazz motifs. Again, Jablonski seemed completely at ease with this repertoire, tossing shards of sound out of the piano and maintaining a restless energy throughout, particularly in the final fugue, a pianistic tour de force of insouciant syncopations and spare sonorities.
An encore, Debussy’s Prelude Feux d’artifice, was offered in the same blasé manner as the Gershwin, yet played with a sparkling filigree precision and wit.