It is perhaps curious that in Sydney the organiser of a four-concert piano recital series should be the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. This most attractive metropolis, while nurturing all kinds of cultural events and increasingly striving to attain the status of another “city that never sleeps”, is rather undernourished in that sublime musical genre, the instrumental recital. Such fundamental works as the Kreutzer or Hammerklavier Sonata may not be performed publicly more than once every few years (not counting lunchtime concerts, conservatorium events and such like); violin, cello or piano recitals are as rare as a joyful moment in a Prokofiev sonata. High praise therefore to the artistic management of the SSO; without their initiative there would remain only one professionally organised piano recital on offer in Sydney for the next six months or so.

Lukáš Vondráček © Irene Kim
Lukáš Vondráček
© Irene Kim

Therefore Lukáš Vondráček’s splendid recital filled a major gap. The Czech artist chose Haydn’s Sonata in C major, Hob.XVI:50 as his concert opener. To play the keyboard music of the 18th century on a large and powerful Steinway piano is a decision not without inherent risks. Indeed, the differences between a modern “concert grand” and the instruments at Haydn’s disposal keep many a pianist away from this repertoire. But not this pianist. In fact, his reading deftly integrated the vast possibilities of his beautiful instrument with a refined and learned approach to unfolding Haydn’s music in a stylish way. I am using the word “stylish” with two separate meanings: the short, neatly clipped phrases, the almost complete lack of pedalling or excessive legato, the clear articulation presented the work in a perfectly credible way. At the same time, the pianist infused Haydn’s world with his own interpretation liberally emphasising important musical moments by subtly changing the length of certain notes, a method called agogic. It provided a highly intelligent, involving reading of a beautiful work far too rarely performed.

The other composition before the interval was chronologically some 150 years, emotionally light-years away from the first item: Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 7 in B flat, one of his three so-called “War Sonatas”. Joyless and tormented this work may be, but most of it was written before German soldiers set foot on Russian soil in 1941, so the naming may not be appropriate. However that didn’t bother the Soviet party leadership in the least and the composer was awarded the Stalin Prize Second Degree for it. Evidently his Sonata was seen to advance the cause of communism.

The Sonata no.7 is a tour de force, providing formidable technical difficulties for the pianist to surmount. Strong, at times aggressive, sounds imbue its first and last movement. They are both written in B flat major, although the relentless first movement doesn’t reveal its tonality until the last bars. The deep resonant chords opening the slow movement take the listener into a different world altogether: we are back with Romeo to Friar Laurence’s cell (the composer’s popular ballet Romeo and Juliet was finished only a few years earlier). It is a striking contrast, helped by the movement’s clearly recognisable tonality of E major, as far away as possible from the first movement’s B flat major. Vondráček played this alternative world with great sensitivity, while holding the percussive, brutal sounds in check not only in the first movement but similarly in the last movement’s unyielding asymmetrical rhythmic patterns. His performance was cogent if not as brave or confrontational, as for instance the recording of Sviatoslav Richter, who premièred the work in 1943. However, he played the work with immaculate technique and conviction, the validity of his sovereign reading was never questionable.

1853 was a stellar year in the history of the romantic piano sonata: only months away from Franz Liszt’s composition of his Piano Sonata in B minor, the 20 year old Johannes Brahms wrote his third and last Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.5, the last work in the programme. The two composers belonged to diametrically opposite sides of the turbulent German music scene; they knew each other and each other’s work (alas, when Liszt played his own newly written Sonata in a private concert, Brahms apparently fell asleep feigning boredom…)

Brahms’ magnificent edifice, lasting almost 40 minutes, could be in danger of collapsing under its own weight unless presented by an empathetic and credible performer. That was the case on Monday night. Most appealingly, Vondráček had a clear opinion about every theme and every character and he didn’t shy away from presenting them. He daringly but effectively used “dislocation”, a technique nowadays considered to be outmoded whereby the right hand plays certain notes slightly after the left for purposes of greater sonority and expressiveness. His rubato playing was inimitable, controlled perhaps but convincing. The moment of untamed music making arrived in the encore, in the wild playing of his compatriot, Bohuslav Martinů’s Polka.

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