Nelson Goerner, piano: Works by Bach, Mendelssohn and Beethoven, Magee Theatre, March 13, 2015.


Nelson Goerner is an artist very much in the spotlight.  And for good reason: he is a remarkably elegant pianist who combines classical discipline and poise with a natural romantic sensibility.  His tonal control, transparency and colour have all been justly noted, as has his virtuosity. This month, the pianist’s new Schumann disc was honoured as ‘Record of the Month’ by BBC Music Magazine, while earlier recordings, including his EMI debut Chopin disc, have received the strongest praise from the Gramophone and elsewhere.  His appearances a few years ago with fellow Argentinian, Martha Argerich -- at the Edinburgh and Verbier festivals -- in some ways might be regarded as a meeting of like minds.  In the current concert, we saw some other sides of this pianist’s inspiration – in Bach, Mendelssohn and Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata.

Goerner’s approach to Bach’s Partita No. 6 was distinguished by strikingly clean articulation, always making sure that dance rhythms were crisply pointed.  At the same time, his gentle rubato and sprung rhythms produced a lovely flow and suspension of the lyrical line, sometimes almost suggesting improvisation.  I found this engaging: the interpretation as a whole came out with both balance and imaginative variety.  While I do not necessarily think of Bach’s keyboard works as having a narrative theme, there was certainly something of that present, the pianist often mixing objective strength with soft, searching shadings to give the eight pieces enriching purpose.  Emotional postures seemed to vary considerably: sometimes joy and delight came forth, other times a sense of wonder, and later on, perhaps a hint of sadness.  This was quite fixating: I assure you that my mind did not wander for a second.

Mendelssohn’s Fantasy, Op. 28 has never particularly captivated me but I enjoyed this as well. All the elegant sparkle that this composer requires was present and, while Goerner may have invested a little too much care into its quieter episodes, the closing presto was simply dazzling.  I do not usually respond to virtuosity as such, but the sheer quickness, the evenness of the gleaming full keyboard runs, and the sharpness of the dynamic contrasts were really something to behold.

On to the mighty ‘Hammerklavier’, which I also found to be an enriching experience.   Goerner allowed the opening declamatory statement to be an anchor for the first movement’s evolution, delivering the motif with very strong rhythmic push every time it came back, and seemingly opening up space for the movement’s lyricism to expand in between.  At a sensible speed, all the complex lines were meshed with clarity, phrases arched with point and feeling, giving a fine sense of architecture.  I also noticed how some typically-garbled descending runs emerged so clearly: every note that might have been submerged was given extra point to ensure that it registered.  

The Scherzo was light, airy and cunningly directed, the hammer blows in the middle given their full due.  The great Adagio was perhaps not as distilled or slow as some, but it progressed so artfully -- like a winding river that twists onwards forever.  Goerner gave each phase of its development a slightly different demeanor, injecting a gentle rubato here, a warmer and more rounded projection there, moving then to a more direct utterance, and so on. Yet he always managed to sustain an underlying pulse, and he had full command over the telling small detail.  Quite masterly: the performance added up to a rich tapestry of feeling with no break in concentration or continuity.    

The complex finale is perhaps an even greater challenge for the interpreter.  Yet Goerner made light of its technical demands, proceeding with an assured chiseled elegance and always maintaining an emotional involvement.  I was taken with the overall ‘life’ in the playing (his remarkable trills included), its sense of line, and the natural ease with which the chorale interlude later on was negotiated within the overall flow.  The ending was as powerful and grand as one could wish, with a full sense of emotional resolution and finality.  I have seldom seen an audience applaud quite so spontaneously and with so much heart.

It is testimony to the physical stamina of today’s pianists that they actually perform encores after the ‘Hammerklavier’.  And potentially challenging ones too: Paderewski’s Nocturne in B flat, Op. 16, no. 4 and Blumenfeld’s Etude for the left hand, Goerner’s virtuoso zeal in the latter showing a quite different side of the artist.

© Geoffrey Newman 2015