This Sunday, Yasmine and I, along with pal Luke, went for a piano recital by Gilles Vonsattel at the Alliance Francaise. This wasn't one of those shows where you nod off a bit in between the most interesting passages. Vonsattel started strong with 3 Contrapunti by Bach - always an arresting composer to listen to, and followed through with the more lightweight but lively and engaging Bagatelles by Beethoven. Next came the piece I'd been waiting for ever since I read the programme about a week ago: Op. 110, Beethoven's 31st piano sonata, the second of his astounding final trilogy of piano sonatas. An ambitious choice, and Vonsattel betrayed just the slightest bit of apprehension, rushing offstage to fetch a cloth to wipe the keys with before commencing the piece. He needn't have worried; it was a superb performance. As far as I'm concerned I could have gone home then and there and had my money's worth - except of course that the show was free.
The second half of the programme was more impressionistic, beginning with Liszt's Les Jeux d'Eau à la Villa d'Este, a sort of impressonist precursor, evoking the sounds of a rippling fountain. It's the sort of piece that works best as a performance, rather than a recording, and I could see large sections of the audience hanging on each note. The show ended with Gaspard de la nuit by Ravel, another immense technical challenge. Again, I think a piece like this is meant to be experienced live rather than mulled over via recordings, and Vonsattel's performance had the right mix of precision and passion. Here's a video of him playing the Scarbo movement, one of the most devilishly difficult piano pieces around. I don't warm to impressionist music easily; I yawn through recordings of Ravel and Debussy. Vonsattel's performance had me engrossed, weaving pictures in my mind.
As important as his choice of music and his playing ability, Vonsattel is an engaging presenter, setting up each piece with an introduction that is inviting and informative without being either pretentious or condescending. We wound up at Spiga having dinner with Vonsattel and several other people after the show, and he seems like a pleasant, level-headed person. He is interested in modern music, admires the Kronos Quartet and Radiohead. I'd like to see him coming back to India some time with a more contemporary programme. But I'd also like to hear him take a crack at Op. 111.