If you’ve ever been to Wigmore Hall, you’ll know that they’re pretty hot on concert etiquette. Next to an easel sporting a canvas depicting a huge mobile phone and a giant red cross (which doesn’t exactly complement the extraordinary pre-Raphaelitesque cupola or the curves of the Steinway), before the performance an impeccably-dressed gentleman appears on stage urging the audience to check their phones and to ‘have a good cough’. I’m all for it. In fact, I wished he’d gone on to say ‘no kipping and absolutely no breathing through constricted nasal passages’. Alas, he did not.

Alessandro Taverna
Alessandro Taverna

So it was with the irritating accompaniment of a napping gentleman’s nose percussion that Alessandro Taverna began his recital with JS Bach’s English Suite no. 5 in E minor. This young Venetian pianist certainly knew how to tame the Steinway and harness the remarkable acoustic of Wigmore Hall, so that Bach’s contrapuntal subtleties flourished rather than vanished in a potentially glorious but destructive mush of sound. Even the most die-hard of early music evangelists could not question the beauty of Taverna’s performance, in which a general lightness of touch, combined with a masterly control of voicing, brought out each line’s autonomy despite the resonance of the hall. It was a supremely controlled interpretation of Bach’s music, both highly intelligent and original.

The contrapuntal was quickly replaced by the chordal as Mendelssohn’s Sonata no. 3 in B flat major began with a regal, processional fanfare, rising up the keyboard in a military dotted rhythm that dominates the entire movement, despite the playfulness of the second phrase. The ensuing scherzo, with its prolonged rapid passages in octaves, evoked spooky images of running around helter-skelter in subterranean passages, trying to escape the clutches of ghosts and ghouls. At least, it did for me, though there was nothing ‘Scooby Doo’ about it – just lots of energy, atmosphere and dexterity. The tension was counterbalanced by a beautifully lyrical third movement, complete with occasional references to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Here Taverna went to town on the rubato: slightly overindulging, I felt, as indeed he had over-relished in Bach’s ornamentation. This is a small criticism though – after all, everyone loves rubato, really. The lyricism turned tumultuous as it led into a carousel-like beginning to the final movement, reminding me of a silent film improvisation: now dissolving into dreams (soft arpeggiated passages with sostenuto pedal); now tiptoeing (staccato paired notes); now fluttering off into the sky as the credits roll.

I did feel sorry for Mendelssohn at the interval. Sandwiched as it was between Bach and Messiaen, his sonata didn’t really stand up to comparison. On the other hand, not much can compare with Messiaen’s insanely virtuosic (both for composer and performer) ‘Regard de l’Esprit de Joie’ from his Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. This is a truly breathtaking piece in which a menacing, dramatic, low opening bursts into jazzy chords switching over cross-rhythms, which in turn succumb to descending chromatic tripled scales. This then fused into a staggering passage in which the superimposition of unrelated chords and the convergence of the pianist’s hands from the extremities of the keyboard depict the coming together of Heaven and Earth in Jesus Christ. Messaien’s ‘Spirit of Joy’ is wild, explosive, Dionysian joy, blinding you with its brilliance, whirling you round in a mad dance, consuming you with its energy. Taverna’s energy, however, was far from consumed – his performance shone with exuberant passion, and despite the incredible strain Messiaen’s writing puts any pianist under, I got the feeling he could go on all night.

The second half of the concert showed he could. Two studies by György Ligeti were infused with perpetual motion through a rapid ostinato rhythm in which accented notes created a pulsating energy, and a continuous movement up the keyboard (Ligeti’s ‘Devil’s Staircase’) created an immense tension that was only released as the last notes were left to reverberate until all sound had rung itself out. Scriabin’s Sonata no. 10 followed, an almost post-impressionist spiralling, swirling wash, often evoking Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun. But if Debussy’s Faun is a light, lazy hallucination, this piece is a full-blown, intensely vivid musical trip – the sort that leaves you wondering where your head’s been at for the last fifteen minutes. The familiar sound of Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka disorientated me further; apparently, I was in a crazy Russian fairground. Taverna’s inconceivable energy surpassed all expectations, riding Stravinsky’s manic piano-writing like a true master, only to return to the stage twice for high-octane encores. Although my ears were begging for a break after all that Stravinskian key-bashing, this dedication, passion and enthusiasm delighted a rapturous audience, some of whom showed their appreciation with a standing ovation.

Alessandro Taverna is a true talent, one whose musical intelligence equals his mastery of the instrument. He’s certainly not to be sniffed at, thank you very much.

****1