In concert – Alberto Portugheis: My Favourite Schumann

Alberto Portugheis (piano)

Schumann
Papillons Op.2 (1831)
Toccata in C major Op.7 (1836)
Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 (1839)

St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London
Friday 11 January 2019

Review by Ben Hogwood

What do you want to be doing at the age of 78? A strange question with which to begin a concert review, you might think, but have a think about your answer before reading on. If you are blessed with the faculties of Argentinian pianist Alberto Portugheis, you will be able to give a recital of Schumann in a central London church, a free concert with which you can illustrate your clear love of music.

There is a steady twinkle in the eyes of this particular pianist, which was clear as he modestly took the applause for three of his favourite pieces by one of the piano’s very best 19th century composers. He began with the early Papillons Op.2, a collection of postcard-sized illustrations full of melody and character completed in Schumann’s twentieth year. Its main theme is a Chopinesque waltz, which Portugheis played with clear affection, before the music goes on to pay clearer homage to Schubert. The ear took a while to adjust to the relatively reverberant acoustic of the church, but the phrasing was clear. Perhaps inevitably there were some technical issues with the most congested and loudest writing, the pianist occasionally missing his octaves and higher notes, but the level of expression invested in the playing more than compensated for this. The final moments, the Grandfathers’ Dance – where Schumann combines the end of the dance with the chimes of six o’clock in the morning – were magical, Portugheis fading the dynamic with beautiful control.

The Toccata in C major Op.7 was next, a very busy piece whose relentless, motoric figuration stayed throughout – and eventually provided great inspiration to a young Prokofiev for his own Toccata of 1912. Some of the detail of Portugheis’s figuration was lost in the bigger acoustic of St James’s but the energy and drive were beyond doubt, with a lovely articulation of the softer second idea.

Finally there was a relatively rare chance to enjoy Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 (Carnival Scenes from Vienna), begun by the composer in the Austrian capital in 1839. In formal terms it is a lopsided work, with a first piece that lasts almost the same length of time as the next four combined, but its characterisation of the busy festival season is vivid and fulsome. The refrain of the first piece (simply marked Allegro) becomes something of an earworm, and Portugheis clearly enjoyed its reappearances, but he was careful to characterise each slight diversion and also stressed the dissonances towards the end.

The sombre Romance followed, then a playful Scherzino, where you could almost feel the nudge in the ribs, before a deeply felt Intermezzo. The Finale has a torrent of notes which presented a much greater challenge, but while he may have struggled a little more obviously Portugheis met these head on, the twinkle in the eye visible once again. Such an approach is ideal for Schumann’s character pieces, and these carnival pranks were very much enjoyed as a result. Happy birthday Alberto…if we’re half as lively as you at the age of 78 we will have done well indeed!

For more information on the St James’s Church lunchtime recital series, visit their website

Further listening

Alberto Portugheis has not committed any Schumann to record, but you can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

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