German-born pianist Lars Vogt has an established reputation as a concerto soloist, a recitalist, and a committed chamber musician, enjoying partnerships with esteemed musicians such as Christian Tetzlaff and Thomas Quasthoff. He is involved in many festivals, including one in a power station (with the power turned off) in the German town of Heimbach.

Lars Vogt  ©  Felix Broede
Lars Vogt
© Felix Broede

In his recital as part of the Southbank Centre’s excellent International Piano Series, he combined the wit of late Haydn with the tenderness and yearning of Chopin, the delightful naivety of contemporary Tyrolean composer Thomas Larcher, and the virtuosity of Brahms.

Haydn’s grand Piano Sonata in C major demonstrates just how far the piano had developed in his time, and capitalises on the range of sonorities the instrument offered. It was written for Therese Jansen – a leading pianist – unlike many of his earlier piano sonatas, which were written for students. Vogt brought a mannered humour, brightness and energy to the opening movement, which belied his treatment of the Adagio, a movement played with a spacious elegance. The final movement with tossed out with an almost tongue-in-cheek casualness, as if to say “There you go! That’s it!”

Chopin’s romantic lullaby, the Berceuse, seemed an odd choice after the wit and humour of Haydn (it was orignally programmed in the second half), but it worked because it shared the elegance of the Haydn in Vogt’s delicate handling of the fiorituras (decorative elements). These were “classical” rather than romantic, with spare use of rubato, thus connecting Chopin to one of his musical heroes, Bach.

With the final notes of the Berceuse still hanging in the air, Vogt launched straight into Chopin’s Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor. This was, for me, the least successful part of the evening. The opening movement had a roughness and unevenness at times, and some of the melodic elements were lost. The Scherzo lacked the requisite fervour and darkness; however, the slower section was sublime, played with great repose and control, with beautiful tone control and balance.

Whenever I hear this sonata performed, I always enjoy a palpable sense of anticipation amongst the audience of how the performer will approach the famous Marche funèbre (Russian pianists tend to favour a Soviet grandeur). The opening notes of Vogt’s account were veiled in mystery, the famous theme emerging with a menacing tread, but an experiment in the treatment of the melody – a rather exaggerated tenuto – was unconvincing. Once again, the Trio was played with a beguiling beauty and control. The closing movement, a brief, visceral stream of musical consciousness, was rather lost in some muddy pedaling and uncertain dynamics.

The second half of the programme opened with Thomas Larcher’s suite of 12 Poems for “pianists and other children”, music which follows in the tradition of writing for youngsters from Bach to Bartók. In his preamble, Vogt introduced the music, highlighting its quirks and curiosities – the brief pieces have titles such as “sad yellow whale” and “(the day) I lost my little green dog”. Vogt played the piece with charm, humour, warmth and affection. Despite the simplicity of the writing, some of the pieces had an aching tenderness.

By contrast, Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Paganini is a statement of virtuosity, a work which takes a simple (and very well-known) theme and transforms it into a pianistic tour de force, its étude elements (trills on the weakest fingers, rapid octaves, polyrhythms) testing the pianist’s technical abilities to the limit. Vogt rose to the challenge with equanimity, combining pristine fingerwork with emotional charge, energy and virtuoso flair.

For an encore, he gave us a gentle waltz, also by Brahms (Op. 39 no. 15), which returned us to the sleepy sonorities of the earlier Berceuse.

Lars VogtFrances Wilson reviews pianist Lars Vogt playing Haydn, Larcher, Brahms and Chopin at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.3