Before the soloist appeared on the platform we learned that the programme sequence would now be changed to Liszt, Schumann, Scriabin and Bach, swapping the original positions of Schumann and Bach. Alexandre Kantorow’s recital was labelled “Through Heaven and Hell” and still opened with Liszt’s Dante Sonata, where we witness the poet’s traversal of Hades in L’Inferno. For the Presto agitato first subject, a sort of chromatic wailing of the shades, Liszt indicates five-bar pedals, a huge blurring effect, which suggested rolling thunder in Kantorow’s account, as did the fff double octaves decorating the chorale. The difficulties sound infernal enough, and only a Mephisto of the keyboard could master them this well. But somehow this Fantasie quasi Sonata seemed louder, longer and lower in compositional stature than it is.

Alexandre Kantorow
© Fondation Louis Vuitton | Martin Raphael Martiq

If the Dante Sonata was hell, there was plenty of heavenly playing to come, including in Schumann’s Piano Sonata no.1 in F sharp minor. Kantorow relished Schumann’s obsessive rhythmic tics, the slow movement Aria was an exquisite broad cantilena, and for once the wayward finale sounded a coherent conclusion. Not every moment of rubato convinced, but that happens with spontaneous playing of the sort Schumann demands.

Scriabin’s Vers la flamme was inspired by his conviction that a constant accumulation of heat would ultimately cause the destruction of the world, a notion once deemed eccentric that now seems prescient. This short piece takes us over a continuous and eventful crescendo ‘towards the flame’. Kantorow’s virtuosity was suitably incandescent; he took the enormous leaps and compound metre in his stride, as he did the long, double-note trills in the final pages, a sort of cosmic quivering heralding final extinction. Has Vers la flamme ever had as compelling a performance? Hearing this was, in TS Eliot’s phrase, “To be redeemed from fire by fire”.

The stunned, packed audience dared not applaud as Kantorow remained motionless at the keyboard, then began his final piece. What could follow the end of the world but a glimpse of Elysium? From Scriabin’s purgative conflagration there emerged the celestial logic of Bach’s Chaconne from his Violin Partita no. 2 in D minor – did this return to the key of the Dante Sonata prompt the change of sequence? Brahms’ piano arrangement is for left hand alone – who ends a piano recital with a work for one hand? But it is a glory of Baroque instrumental music, Brahms rises magnificently to the challenge, and so did Kantorow. His control of tone and line, and sheer concentration, paced the 32 variations so that they unfolded with cumulative power, with the major key middle episode beautifully sounded on the keyboard. The playing in the final pages seemed to achieve a state of grace, so the audience let the benediction settle before the ovation swelled.

In addition to re-sequencing his programme, the pianist had cancelled the interval, so had been sitting at the piano for over 80 minutes. But he offered encores nonetheless. In Stravinsky’s Firebird, that creature is described as “all gold and flames” and Guido Agosti’s transcription of the finale makes a noble apotheosis. Finally, a recital that began with Liszt’s Dante Sonata from the Italie volume of his Années de Pèlerinage returned to that same publication for a beguiling account of the Petrarch Sonnet no.104.

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