Lars Vogt’s unorthodox pianism knocks at Glenn Gould’s door without ever daring to fully enter his outlandish realm, and since there can only be one Glenn Gould that is perhaps just as well. In addition to the counterintuitive articulation and other Gouldian stylings his performances offer masterful soft playing and, when convincingly maintained, a taut sense of drama. Were all of this to somehow cohere, his interpretations would be formidable. After this recital, which is the fourth or fifth time I have seen Vogt, his inconsistency still doesn't exasperate – indeed, for all the spottiness he remains an intelligent player unafraid to take risks – but the prospect that he will ever corral the disparate elements of his style into performances to be filed under something more flattering than ‘unusual’ remains only a prospect for the moment.

Lars Vogt © Felix Broede
Lars Vogt
© Felix Broede

Haydn’s late C major piano sonata was a rather joyless affair, with little respite from a fussiness of manner intended to spell out the writing’s Haydnesque spirit, as counterproductive as labouring over it must surely be. At its worst this led to scenery-chewing displays of wit and whimsy which missed the bigger picture. The opening theme gets two statements, soft and loud, and Vogt’s ‘Surprise’ symphony treatment was played to the back rows at the beginning and with unvaried emphasis on repeat. But the real prank here is articulated throughout the exposition: after a transition to G major, the expected key for the second subject, Haydn simply restates his first theme. He then goes through the motions of modulating into G major again, this time stretching out a dominant upbeat over four bars with florid figuration and a mischievous chromatic fake out, only to repeat the first subject another time. Or so it seems. Following this second restatement there is what looks like some second-subject material and here comes the triple bluff, since all this ‘new’ writing is derived from the first subject. As all this relies on variation Haydn also gets a head start on the development in the middle of the exposition and so goes somewhat beyond the typical monothematic exposition with multiple keys he was fond of. Naturally there is the theory and how the conceit can sound in practice, but apart from teasing out that chromatic diversion Vogt let these formal features pass him by. After a stolid slow movement the third movement was again preoccupied with surface detail.

To move from this, via a closely regulated and rather mechanical account of Chopin’s Berceuse, to a work whose status as a sonata has been derided did not seem a promising prospect. That Chopin’s B flat minor sonata, dismissed by Schumann as the binding together of ‘four of his maddest children’, has more structural unity that its detractors have claimed should be clear to those who can listen out for a minor third, but in performance the pianists with the firmest handle on the work tend to be interventionists. And that Vogt certainly was here: the first movement’s first subject was not too tumultuous, leading to an interesting continuity with the second subject, some overstatement at the exposition’s climax notwithstanding; the dialectic between the Austro-Germanic sonata form paradigm and the elements perceived as alien to it was most pronounced in the second movement (irreducibly Chopin and yet quite plausibly a classical scherzo and trio rather than mazurka and berceuse on steroids); and the poker-faced opening to the Funeral March stealthily amassed weight with high-precision gradations of touch before venturing on to starkly representational territory with explosions into D flat major and sudden wrenching back to the minor tonic. The enigmatic Finale was mumbled into the piano with blurry pedalling; not for Vogt then the cinematic imagery of winds howling over churchyard graves (Rubinstein) but the deceased’s trapped ghost, breaking loose with a terrifying final chord.

Following the interval, a change in mood with Poems, or pieces in the vein of Kurtág’s Games written for ‘pianists and other children’ by Thomas Larcher. Larcher’s commitment to composing for children can be admired (the 12 Poems occupied him for a number of months, he says) but these short pieces speak in a simple, innocent language with triadic primary colours and much repetition, and once one has heard two or three one has heard them all. The odd hint of melancholy aside, they idyllicize piano-learning, and so the irony of following them with Brahms’ Paganini Variations – for kids who do well at Larcher, there beckon the joys of a conservatoire practice room and the mechanized learning of these finger-breaking exercises – was almost too much. As music, quite what attraction Brahms’ weaker piano writing is supposed to have outside of the practice room was not communicated in Vogt’s performance, overcome as it was by what had been minor intrusions in the Chopin (overpedalling, unevenness, some banging). Fine performances of Chopin’s B flat minor sonata are thin on the ground, but consistency remains a chance one takes in a Lars Vogt recital.