Wigmore Mondays: Lise de la Salle plays Bach, Liszt & Brahms

Lise de la Salle (piano) photo (c) Nicolas Brodard

J.S. Bach Italian Concerto in F major BWV 971 (1735)

Liszt Fantasie and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H S529 (1855)

Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24 (1861)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 9 October 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

A nicely planned hour’s recital from Lise de la Salle, focussing on the collision between two different historical periods in music.

The so-called ‘Romantic’ composers rediscovered the music of Bach half way through the nineteenth century, and this led to a series of important performances and rearrangements of the composer’s music. Liszt paid his own characteristically larger than live homage in a fantasy based on the notes of the composer’s name (B-A-C-H translating in German as Bb – A – C – B natural, or H). Brahms, while not directly referencing Bach, built a hugely impressive seam of variations and a fugue on a theme from one of Handel’s Harpsichord Suites. Lise began her recital with Bach’s own act of homage, though this was a concerto for piano only written in the style of his Italian contemporaries.

Follow the music

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

Bach Italian Concerto (12 minutes, beginning at 1:39 on the broadcast)

Listen out for the lively first movement, marked ‘Allegro’ (from 1:39), then an intensely lyrical slow movement marked ‘Andante’, written in the style of an aria (5:12). Then the last movement brings a lively conclusion to the piece, packed as it is with a stream of melodic content (10:56)

Liszt Fantasie and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H (13 minutes, from 14:45)

Liszt’s gestures are typically bold at the start, where the B-A-C-H theme is stated boldly – but then because of the chromatic nature of the theme the music becomes very mysterious around five minutes in (20:00 or so). Then, from 21:30, we get ‘high voltage’ Liszt in the form of some tempestuous piano writing, where de la Salle responds to the challenge very impressively. Then, from 25:09, we get a big piece of chorale (hymn like) writing, before the theme is stated again and a thoroughly convincing ending ensues.

Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24 (27 minutes, from 28:50)

In a prolific burst, Brahms wrote no fewer than 25 variations on Handel’s theme. The theme itself is played in the original form, and then the variations begin at 30:02. Brahms achieves a staggering variety of moods, speeds and phrases, moving away from Handel’s outline to explore new tonalities and rhythms. For a notable contrast listen out to the light footed, graceful Variation 3 (31:43) and the following Variation 4 (32:24), a strident march. On more than one occasion Brahms moves to the relatively downbeat minor key, dramatically so in Variation 13 (40:20) – which he follows with the capricious Variation 14 (41:54). The variations are noticeably more playful at this point in the work, but once again Brahms’ serious side exerts itself as we lead towards the fugue. This begins at 51:22, Brahms stating the melody and then bringing in each part with incredible precision, each strand fusing seamlessly.

Thoughts on the concert

This was a fascinating combination of pieces, played with technical brilliance by de la Salle – though her projection was at times on the loud side, meaning that the Bach especially felt as though it was played in capital letters – and the last movement felt rushed.

The Liszt was impressive and big boned, while the Brahms – though perhaps not getting the full contrast of moods – was beautifully and affectionately worked. The staccato eighth variation was especially impressive in its clarity, as was the quickfire fourteenth, though when the Fugue appeared it was initially difficult to grab the rhythm. That said, an impressive reading from a pianist growing in stature.

Further listening and reading

If you like the idea of Romantic composers taking their lead from the Baroque, then I think you’ll like this album from Murray Perahia. It brings together the ultimate Bach revival composer – Mendelssohn – with arrangements of Bach by Busoni.

You can catch up with Lise de la Salle at her website

Meanwhile her Liszt album from 2011 is available on Spotify below: