Filmed in Aix’s Théâtre du Jeu de Paume and presented as part of the online edition of the Festival de Pâques, Maria João Pires’ recital was a rare occasion to reconnect with the artistry of a great pianist whose presence in the concert halls has become, alas, too rare. The programme she proposed featured two very different sonatas composed in Vienna around 1820, separated by music in a somehow freer form, inspired by dance and poetry, composed many decades later in France. Apparently unrelated, the works constituted together a true showcase for Pires’s musicality, delicacy and her mastery of the art of phrasing.

Maria João Pires
© Caroline Doutre

Schubert wrote the “Little” A Major Sonata D664 in 1819 during a happy summer vacation in the countryside. Nevertheless, gaiety is always tempered in his output, even in the apparently carefree, Mozart-evoking Finale. Pires underlined well the melancholy pervading the score even if the D Major Andante lacked some tension. In the first movement, some of the legatos were ignored, but the music had a remarkable Lied-like quality with the two hands alternatively pushing the “story” forward.

Pires’ version of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque was further proof of the pianist’s no-nonsense approach to music-making, anchored by a strong conviction that interpreters should be a self-effacing vessel ensuring that composers’ intentions are properly carried out. Without overemphasising contrasts, Pires let the music composed under the double sign of Verlaine’s poetry and the 18th century “Fêtes galantes” of Rameau or Watteau – flow naturally along, meandering between innumerable harmonic transformations. Rubatos were used discreetly, just to underline the sense of expectation. Clair de lune was devoid of any suggestion of sentimental milking, a faithful evocation of the Verlainian Spleen. The distinguishing staccato left-hand quavers of the Passepied were rendered gracefully, and so was the play between different textures in the Menuet.

Maria João Pires
© Caroline Doutre

The first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata no. 32 in C minor, Op.111, lacked a certain roughness. Edges were excessively smoothed out and the tension between the sonata form and the fugal elements was not sufficiently pregnant. Contrasts – both rhythmic and dynamic – could have been bigger between the variations in the Arietta, but the meditative quality of the music was clearly brought forward, and Pires’ beauty of tone was remarkable. The last bars seemed to foreshadow the “Ewig… ewig” end in Mahler’s Der Abschied.

The streaming experience itself was quite interesting. The viewer could select from multiple images displayed on the right hand of the screen, each corresponding to a different camera focusing on an alternate perspective: the pianist’s hands on the keyboard, a close view of Pires’ expressive visage, the piano seen from above. You could switch between them at any point, or you could just accept the production manager’s choice. The sound and the atmosphere in a concert hall might be an incomparable experience, but, given the circumstances, the ability to explore these alternatives was not without merits.


This performance was reviewed from the Festival de Pâques video stream

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