Daniel Lebhardt came to play in Holywell St on Sunday morning; an event of significance for those who knew his playing, and of dramatic epiphany to those who did not. He strode with long strides onto stage and started to play almost before he'd sat down, as if he couldn't wait to get at the opening notes. Perhaps it was a desire to prolong or even deepen his already intimate knowledge of the piece, given that he had played it 10 days earlier in Chichester, W. Sussex.
The sonata opens with a stark opposition of materials; a soft, arpeggiated chord, marked largo, followed by a nervous burst of active music as the pace accelerates to allegro. When later the largo re-appears, the score calls for the sostenuto pedal to be held down by the pianist so as to obtain a tolling effect as from a heavy bell. I noticed that Lebhardt released the pedal several times and he told me afterwards he does not like to create an overly echoing effect, and that following practice before the concert he did not want the echo from this Steinway piano to overwhelm.
In the adagio, Mike Wheeler's excellent notes referred to the 'drumming' figure from the left hand. Lebhardt took this fairly sotto voce to begin with, but gradually took pains to ratchet up the volume and intensity of the figure as he pressed on. In the finale, the agitated notes with the left hand at the bottom of the register became almost thunderous, but never so as to obscure the right hand melody from making itself heard. All but those of us very familiar with the piece were caught unawares by the sudden ending.
Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit from 1909, based on mid-19th century prose poems, Gaspard de la Nuit is commonly held to be one of the most demanding piano works in the repertoire, with its horribly complex finger work added to the sensitive task of articulating enigmatic literary ideas – a water-nymph rejected in love, a corpse dangling from the gibbet, the night-time mischief caused by a flitting goblin. Lebhardt produced subtle rippling all at the upper end of the keyboard, his hands crossing nevertheless. Then he essayed a fast run, done with just the tips of thumb and one finger. At the moment when the nymph understands her rejection and weeps gently, the playing became grave and still.
The second movement, 'Le Gibet,' is notable for the naggingly constant note, presumably indicative of the pendulum-movement of the corpse. Lebhardt told me how he preferred to avoid a strictly metronomic beat here in favour of introducing a slight modulation of time and perhaps finger pressure as he worked variations around the beat.
The fireworks now came thick and fast in the notorious 'Scarbo'. This is nominally a scherzo, but there's a element of grotesquerie about a goblin that extends well beyond the playful. The pianist's fingers hardly seemed to touch the keys at the top end of the keyboard, while repeated notes with both hands and double-note scales were tossed off with a wink. The two main climaxes were approached, then surmounted, and we held our breath as the music spun and weaved its way around us. Ravel's strangely muffled ending came almost as a relief so we could relax the concentration that had been demanded of us by playing of such quality. Lebhardt told me this was his 81st public engagement this year, and that he had been practising the work for the preceding nine days, and for three to four hours on some of those days. Such commitment reaped a golden reward here.
Finally we enjoyed an encore in the form of Franz Liszt's 'Spanish Rhapsody', with all its rapid chords and octaves. Lebhardt has a particular affinity for the music of his countryman and the music just poured out him in torrents. We sat as rapt as those present had done at the Sheldonian on 26th October when Khatia Buniatishvili played the same piece as her encore. Now, at the end, whole sections of the audience stood and roared their appreciation.
In the King's Arms before the concert I had spoken enthusiastically over coffee of Daniel Lebhardt's quality to two hard-bitten, hard-to-please concertgoers, veterans of the Salzburg Festival and recitals at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice. "I hear what you say but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating", their faces had seemed to say. When I went to speak to Lebhardt after the concert, one of these aficionados hurried up and threw her arms ecstatically round him; praise and joy were unconfined.