Few venues do “faded grandeur” better than the Royal Conservatoire of Brussels. The auditorium of Belgium’s premier music college is a venerable grande dame of a concert hall – all off-white paint peeling from cracked walls and heavy red velvet curtains coated with dust – making it an elegant and alluring place in which to while away an evening, its imperfections lending a certain sepia-tinged sparkle to any recital.

Jos van Immerseel © Alex Vanhee
Jos van Immerseel
© Alex Vanhee

Antwerp-born pianist, harpsichordist and renowned conductor Jos van Immerseel had decided upon an evening of pure Schubert, placing three stalwarts of the composer’s output for piano at the heart of Friday night’s programme. The opening piece, Sixteen German Dances, was a diverting warm-up act. Each brief movement was played with delicacy and lightness of touch, although there were times that I felt a more pronounced staccato would have helped bring out the more playful passages of these pithy little waltzes.

It was in his interpretation of Schubert’s celebrated Impromtus that van Immerseel began to relax into the evening and demonstrate his customary flair. The first, in C minor, was poetically drawn and its alternating stately chordal passages and sparse lyrical sections were well defined. Van Immerseel’s agile execution of the allegro triplet figures in the second was exhilarating to listen to, even though his over-eagerness for this particular motif meant that the left hand accompaniment occasionally languished half a beat behind. The third of the Impromtus was particularly affecting, its plaintive melody doused with all the nostalgic longing Schubert intended. All in all, this was an assured and touching interpretation of these mainstays of the repertoire.

Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat major, D.960 – the last of a triptych of sonatas written in September 1828 – was his final instrumental composition before his premature demise, written in a frenzy of activity during the last two months of his life. Its Beethovenian themes and pervasive air of resignation are always deeply affecting, but take on an added sense of poignancy in light of the composer’s personal circumstances. A piece that makes extensive use of the whole keyboard, van Immerseel was slightly let down by an instrument that was afflicted by poor tuning in the upper and lower registers. Nevertheless, he still managed to deliver a sensitive and moving interpretation.

Van Immerseel had not memorised his programme, so the evening was troubled by a few hair-tearing page turns which did, on occasion, lead to a break in the music. This did not diminish his performance, however, but instead created an appealing sense that the audience had congregated in the pianist’s living room for a low-key parlour performance.

This may have been a performance with a few minor imperfections, but it was also an incredibly charming one. With his coy stage presence and unassuming style of playing, van Immerseel is an exceptionally endearing performer. A performance that is technically flawless can also be a sterile and unmoving one, and it would be mean-spirited to conclude that a few misplaced notes detracted from an otherwise impressive reading of some of Schubert’s most treasured works. Van Immerseel’s Schubertian odyssey was far from sterile, but an evening of emotive and engaging piano playing.

***11