Joseph Moog, piano: Works by Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Fauré and Rubinstein, Playhouse, April 12, 2015.

Joseph Moog is certainly a pianist to get to know, and I have seldom seen a young artist exude so much poise, strength and confidence in their playing.  From the gleamingly-projected runs to the chiseled clarity and firmness of his articulation, this elegant 27 year-old German certainly makes one think anew about what to expect from those of a tender age.  Celebrated as Young Artist of the Year in 2012 by The International Classical Music Awards, and having just released a number of recordings for Onyx, Joseph Moog is also noted for his innovative programming.  At this concert, we were taken on a journey that started with Beethoven, worked its way through Chopin and Liszt and ended with Gabriel Fauré and Anton Rubinstein.  Jeremy Nicholas, reviewing his similarly wide-ranging 2012 disc 'Divergences' in Gramophone, wrote "Few other pianists would risk such a programme, but Joseph Moog … is so bristling with talent and assurance".

I certainly had no questions about Moog’s performance of Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ Sonata that opened the concert.  This was beautifully structured playing of astonishing maturity, finding ample space and variety to register both the work’s strength and beauty.  Articulation was judged to perfection, with some nice individual touches in phrasing.  Both the opening and closing movements had an engaging sense of purpose and emotional resolution and the slow movement flowed with just the right degree of expression and repose.  Even in the Finale, I was very impressed with how the pianist could gently retreat from its ongoing motion and find, for a moment, a quiet and more contemplative world.

Many of the same cleanly-etched characteristics were present in Liszt’s Réminiscences de Norma that followed.  Joseph Moog obviously relishes playing pieces like this and sails through their virtuoso challenges with ease.  Nonetheless, I just happened to be reacquainting myself with the Liszt transcriptions in the early performances of Jorge Bolet (now re-issued by Sony in a delightful 10cd box), and I was utterly amazed at just how operatic Bolet is in his degree of characterization – beguiling charm and virtuosity springing up in all directions yet completely avoiding bombast.  For all the admirable flair, tonal beauty and bravura power in Moog’s playing, it is hardly surprising that he is not this mercurial or charming yet, tending to be heavier and more serious, though fully sensitive to the dramatic portrait at hand.

The two relative rarities were Chopin’s First Piano Sonata, Op. 4 and Fauré’s Theme and Variations.  These were again crisply executed in Moog’s hands, but tended to the objective and emotionally austere side.  It is not unreasonable to attempt to find the roots of Chopin, say, in Beethoven, but for a student work that has languished so long in neglect, this Chopin sonata really needs some strong additional ingredient – radiant charm, caprice, or idiosyncrasy – to bring it to life.  This interpretation did have some nicely shaded and elegant contours and moments of intriguing rhythmic élan but was still too straight-laced to inspire me to see the work as more than a curiosity. The Allegretto, for example, came off as somewhat pale and there were other passages that cried out for stronger romantic involvement.

Fauré’s Theme and Variations, on the other hand, is really a very distinguished piece of music (just not played in recital that often) and many have been rightfully charmed by the rhapsodic melancholy and sense of forlorn struggle in its opening theme.  As French interpreters have long shown, it is the natural flexibility in utterance and feeling, rather than virtuosity as such, that brings the work home.  I think that Moog again treated this work somewhat severely -- almost formally -- not particularly reaching out to find its subtle emotional shadings or lyrical flow.  I found the result firmly conscientious but relatively aloof. 

The concert ended with the pianist’s own arrangement of Anton Rubinstein’s Fantasy on Hungarian Melodies, a rather fun, barnstorming construction from a composer who seldom figures in anyone’s ‘Top 100’ but which drew a nice parallel to the previous Liszt transcription.  I am not really sure on the ultimate merits of this piece but it certainly was a wonderful vehicle to showcase the pianist’s keyboard command and virtuoso skills.  And that is exactly what I took from this concert – just how much skill this young pianist has!  

Whether the programming mix adds up to something substantial is another question.  Young artists like to experiment with variety these days but, leaving the Beethoven aside, it is not clear how one can create many riches from the likes of two showpieces and two less than fully-absorbed performances of ‘rarities’.  Obviously, one secret in making the rarities successful is to play them as masterpieces, but that takes a great deal of work, thought and time.  This is especially true of the Fauré, whose idiom is elusive.  In many respects though, this is a young artist that is still searching to define himself.  As we gleaned from his touching rendering of the Charles Trenet encore, En avril à Paris, and his own strong advocacy of jazz that came out in the post-concert discussion, he might very well turn out to be an outstanding crossover artist.  Could this be the next Frederich Gulda in the making?  Joseph Moog’s sheer tonal beauty and keyboard elegance, plus his ability to play Beethoven well, are indeed suggestive. 

© Geoffrey Newman 2015

the concert experience