A London Summer with Huntley Dent / Music / The Berkshire Review in London

Lars Vogt plays Janáček, Schubert, and Beethoven Op. 111 at Wigmore Hall

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Lars Vogt at the converted power plant in Heimbach, scene of his summer music festival, Spannungen.
Lars Vogt at the converted power plant in Heimbach, scene of his summer music festival, Spannungen.

Lars Vogt, piano
Wigmore Hall
July 7, 2011

Janáček – In the Mists
Schubert – Piano Sonata in G major, D. 894
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor Op. 111

Worldly wise. I have enough concerts at Wigmore Hall under my belt to qualify as a Wiggie (not that I could ever vote Tory), if it’s not too cheeky to nickname the knowing regulars at this, the best hall in London. The seating capacity is only 540, a minnow that would disappear in the maw of Albert Hall, so the stars who appear here do it for love, not to mention the warm, enveloping acoustic—this must be the closest that a Pollini or Tetzlaff comes to singing in the shower. We are just a week past Pollini’s recital in Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, but the chills and tingles he failed to supply, sadly, came with a rush at Wigmore last night.

The source was the German pianist Lars Vogt, who has a strong European reputation but almost none, so far as I know, in the U.S. To suppose that he could outplay Pollini would not be a wager I’d have taken, but on this evening he did, decisively, in a program that included one of Schubert’s most enigmatic sonatas, the G major D. 894, and the mind-blowing (after all these years) Op. 111 of Beethoven. There are many works where one might ask a pianist, “How do you play this?” These two works lead to a more primal question: “Can you play this?”

Let’s start back to front. Vogt sat down to Beethoven with a frown, which seems like the right expression. He was daring the piano not to cower. Late Beethoven is famous for being impenetrable, but the first movement of Op. 111, with its hectic expletives and massive severity, seems to castigate the audience. Vogt was intent on not making any of it land beautifully on the ear. He realized that the honest way to approach Beethoven’s last sonata is, first, to meet the composer eye to eye. Very few pianists possess such stature, and as a result, they may make the music sound hard or impossible to execute (ease is out of the question), craggy or marmoreal, Olympian or brutal. These are second-best when you can’t do what the score really needs: to make every note sound as if it matters.

Now forty, Vogt never gave me any hints previously that he might accomplish such a feat, but the whole audience was caught unawares, I think, as he proceeded through every twisty hairpin angle of the score, smoothing out nothing, allowing not a single glib phrase. Utmost praise quickly turns tedious—it’s like waving at the crowd who didn’t make it inside the velvet rope—but the sheer grip and personal engagement that Vogt displayed shook me. I wish you had been there.

Spoiler alert. That is, I may spoil your mood by grousing at how feebly Beethoven sonatas are now played. A fog lifted when Vogt tore into Op. 111 with such obliviousness to the risks ahead. It seemed as if the Brendels, Schiffs, Lupus, and Perahias were paddling the keys with baby fingers, exhibiting a maddening timidity while expecting us to believe that any other way wasn’t correct historically. A stunted oak looks tall when the giants have been chopped down. Vogt’s performance, even if it became blunt at times and blurry in the most congested passages, restored my faith. The final sublime pages of the Arietta really were “semplice e cantabile,” not because he was practiced in making a line sound simple and songful but because a state of the soul had been attained. Did the isolated, sick, deaf-defying composer intend anything less?

I wish I could leave it at the encore, which no one expected. Vogt admitted that there was nothing to say after Op. 111, but he needed to cool his scalding fingers, and a tender Brahms Intermezzo (Op. 117 no. 1) did that service. It also recalled the limpid lyricism of Schubert. Before the intermission Vogt gave a reading of the G major Sonata D. 894 that made me reassess the work as one of Schubert’s greatest. This work, which grows from simple rhythmic seeds (a Morse code signal of long-short-long in the first movement, six staccato taps in the Scherzo and finale), manages to develop them into something clangorously grand, only to slip away into soft melody without anyone knowing how the trick is done.

Vogt presaged his Beethoven by making the Schubert sound powerful and unyielding (there were moments when I could forgive myself for not being born early enough to hear Richter play this way). It’s a fault when a pianist can’t smile in Schubert, and Vogt managed to in the trio of the Scherzo, which is a jolly little German dance (almost a dance for jolly little Germans). His most beguiling gesture was saved for the close, however. In their last repetition, those six staccato notes end prematurely on the fifth, with a blank space where the final tap should be. Vogt rounded the phrase with a silence, and the effect was like hearing a singer stop two bars short in a Mozart aria, lift an eyebrow, and exit smiling. How lovely.

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