Occasionally one comes across an artist who seems so at one with the music, that one can almost hear the composer at the artist’s shoulder saying ”yes, that is what I meant”. Such was the effect of French pianist François-Frédéric Guy’s performance of Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, the Op.111, at London’s Wigmore hall on Friday night: a performance replete in insight and an emotional intensity which comes from a long association with and admiration for this composer and his music.

François-Frédéric Guy © Benjamin de Diesbach
François-Frédéric Guy
© Benjamin de Diesbach

 By his own admission, Beethoven is Guy’s favourite composer, and in recent years he has been exploring the complete piano sonatas, concertos and the chamber music in a series of concerts and recordings, including a live recording of the complete piano sonatas. But his special relationship goes back much further – he studied with Karl-Ulrich Schnabel, son of that great Beethoven interpreter from an earlier age, Artur Schnabel – and his total immersion in Beethoven results in a depth of understanding about the composer and his music which is manifested in some of the finest Beethoven playing I have heard in recent years.

He saved the Op.111 for the second half of the concert, and opened with Book 2 of Debussy’s Preludes, composed 1911-13. This set is less frequently performed than Book 1 (which contains the most well-known and much-loved Preludes - “La fille aux cheveux de lin” and “La cathédrale engloutie”), yet Book 2 is far more interesting. Written towards the end of Debussy’s life, the stylistic and harmonic daring of these works hint at where Debussy may have gone next, musically, had he lived longer, and in these miniatures he cleared the way for composers such as Dukas and Messiaen.

Guy brought character and colour to each Prelude, deftly highlighting the individual nature of these small works: “Brouillards” swathed the Wigmore audience in mist, yet the sound was never foggy, and indeed throughout the entire first half subtle and controlled pedaling led to a remarkable clarity and quality of sound which is hard to achieve in Debussy’s piano music. “Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses” (Fairies are exquisite dancers) fluttered delicately, while the irony of a Frenchman playing a French composer’s take on the British National Anthem in “Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.” was clearly not lost on Guy, who played this Prelude with wit and humour. The archaic mysteries of “Canope” were revealed in its stately chords and curious harmonies, while “Feux d’artifice” scurried about the keyboard, alight with pianistic fireworks, all filigree motifs and glissandi.

And so to Beethoven’s Op.111 whose darkly dramatic opening movement was played with such concentrated power and authority that the Arietta, which precedes the variations, seemed to emerge, revived and newly-formed, serene and prayerful, from the exhausted close of the Allegro. In the variations, Guy took us on a shared journey, as each new variation was revealed with subtle shifts of mood, dynamic colour and that careful control of the pedal. There were moments of aching tenderness and poignancy (the long trill near the end of the movement), philosophy, weirdness (that “jazzy” variation), profundity and emotional intensity. The work closed ethereally, the final notes no more than a whispered pianissimo.

As François-Frédéric Guy said himself after the concert, how does one follow the Op.111? The choice of the first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata was an unexpected encore, but this was no clichéd rendering of this twilight movement. In this very personal, introspective reading, it felt as if we were hearing it for the first time. The second encore was a Chopin Nocturne, delicate, fleeting and subtly nuanced.