Unlike Paris’s cafés and restaurants, which have been packed since late May’s réouverture, the city’s concerts and recitals have been more lightly attended. Social distancing in music halls is rigorously observed (as is mask-wearing), niceties ignored by Paris’s drinking population. More’s the pity about attendance, as listening to live music again is, in its own way, like quenching a raging thirst.
A day or so after the ban on live indoor performances was eased, Marek Janowski conducted the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in a short but satisfying program of the Prélude et Mort d’Isolde from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde with the Polish soprano Iwona Sobotka and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor. While Sobotka’s Isolde was occasionally muffled by the orchestra (she sang from the rear of the stage) and the playing more emotionally restrained than usual, the performance was nevertheless well received. By contrast, Janowski’s Bruckner was just the thing. The Third Symphony is a marvelous work with a mystical first movement, open fifths, huge climaxes, and shattering silences. And who but Bruckner would ever have counterposed a solemn organ chorale in the last movement with a polka—and done so to such stirring effect? In this performance there was no hint of coolness, and the audience responded with appropriate warmth before being shooed out in observance of Paris’s 9 p.m. curfew.
The curfew was still in place on May 25 when the organist Nathan Laube offered a highly polished program of works old (Bruhns), new (Beffa), and old-and-new (Bach/Reger and Liszt/Laube). Laube began with Nicolaus Bruhns’s fantastical E-minor Praeludium with its complex registration changes and parallel scales for feet (organ virtuosity, it seems, was not invented by J. S. Bach), followed by Max Reger’s organ transcription of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. Though Reger once disingenuously claimed to be not much of an organist, his musical imagination shone through in his vivid reimagining of Bach to which Laube did full justice. Ciels brouillés (Cloudy Skies) is an atmospheric work commissioned for the occasion from Karol Beffa, a composer and pianist at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Sixteen minutes in length, its first part has a Gregorian feel, while during the second a ghostly Dies irae wafts in and out of the piece’s halting rhythm. Written in a Ligeti-like musical language, Ciels brouillés has an atmospheric, even spooky, mood. Laube’s sensitive performance showed that the unknown and unexpected, even at a première, are by no means the enemies of enjoyment.
As often happens, the best was saved for last with Laube’s sensational organ transcription of Liszt’s B-minor Sonata. Liszt himself was a legendary transcriber of orchestral and chamber works into solo piano versions, but what Laube did was the opposite: he transformed Liszt’s piano work into a quasi-orchestral, single-movement symphony, putting on full display the instrumental colors of Maison Radio’s Gerhard Grunzing organ. In the nineteenth century, Camille Saint-Saëns did something similar with his organ transcription of Liszt’s St. François d’Assise predicant aux oiseaux. On that occasion, the dazzled Liszt (who was hard to dazzle) told Saint-Saëns that it was the greatest musical feat he’d ever heard. Judging from its reaction the other night, the Maison Radio audience might have been similarly impressed.
In mid-June, the pianist Jean-Nicolas Diatkine appeared at the lovely old Salle Gaveau on the rue de la Boëtie. The evening had many pleasant surprises, among them an imaginatively structured program and Diatkine’s clarity of line, perceptive phrasings, and ingenious takes.
Diatkine began with Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. From the sad and noble C-minor opening theme through to the concluding Allegro brillante, the playing was vivid and, above all, clear. The Etudes are a demanding work, and not only for the pianist. Instead of playing through continuously, as some performers do, Diatkine paused for a few moments after each etude-variation, giving his listeners a chance to let the music sink in. Schumann adored Bach, and Diatkine’s separation of voices throughout this Bach-like piece was well done, especially in the thickly textured Marcato il canto second variation.
In lesser hands, the climactic right-hand tremolo in Liszt’s Liebestod transcription can sound a little like “Aunt Sadie on the parlor upright,” in Glenn Gould’s memorable phrase, but Diatkine managed it well, perfectly balancing the right hand against the gunshot chords in the left. A poetic reading of Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 followed, and the scheduled part of the program finished with Beethoven’s A-major sonata, Op. 101, full of clever inspiration and rhythmic emphasis. For encores, Diatkine finished with more Liszt (one of the Petrarch sonnets) and Schubert (Mélodie hongroise, understated and uncannily evoking the sound of a cimbalom). Though not well known outside of France, Diatkine certainly should be.