I was thinking about the Variations sérieuses, Mendelssohn’s piano piece. I was also listening to it—played by Horowitz, at Carnegie Hall in 1946. What a masterpiece this is. And what a masterly, wizardly performance.
When I was growing up, there were two prominent recordings of the Variations sérieuses, really: that by de Larrocha and that by Perahia. Then, the work pretty much fell into disuse, as far as I can tell. I don’t see it on programs. I don’t hear it from pianists.
Hemlines go up and down. Repertoire goes in and out of fashion. It has ever been thus, and always will be, presumably.
While I was grumbling about the Variations sérieuses, YouTube notified me of a new recital from Wigmore Hall: here. It is by Mishka Rushdie Momen, a London-born pianist, not yet thirty. Her program included the Variations sérieuses, which of course made me smile.
How did she play the work? Well. She has intelligence, fingers, and “seriousness of purpose.” (This used to be a category in evaluating students.) She made some mistakes, of a technical nature, which I was sort of glad about. One grows tired of doctored studio recordings, and tampered-with other recordings.
“Plums in the pudding.” That’s how Peter Levi once referred to mistakes, in conversation with David Pryce-Jones. (Levi was talking about writing—misspellings and the like—but we can apply the phrase to musical performance as well.)
Anything wrong with Ms. Momen’s traversal of the Variations sérieuses? I would make two comments. One of the variations is a warm, plump D-major hymn. I would have liked a warmer, plumper sound. And the Coda—Presto—I would have liked a little . . . more daring? Even more manic? More electric? Still, Ms. Momen was a pleasure to hear (and so was Mendelssohn).
She had begun the recital with Rameau. Who has played Rameau—on the piano—over the years? I think of Georges Cziffra, the Hungarian virtuoso. Perhaps he was paying homage to his adopted country, France. In our own time, Grigory Sokolov is probably the chief Rameau-player.
Ms. Momen played “Les tendres plaintes,” neatly and affectingly.
Later on, it was Chopin’s Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38. That never goes out of style, does it? Nor do the other three ballades. At the beginning of No. 2, I would have liked a richer, warmer, plumper sound, deeper into the keys. I don’t demand the full Rubinstein or Barenboim. But . . .
Again reminiscing, again thinking of repertoire, I suppose I first heard In the Mists, Janáček’s piano cycle, from Ivan Moravec: a Czech pianist in Czech music. In subsequent years, In the Mists was all the rage. It seemed to be on every other program, from sundry pianists.
Go with me to the opera for a moment, please. La favorite—La favorita, when performed in Italian, rather than French—is now a rarity. But, for generations, it was one of Donizetti’s greatest hits, as Lucia di Lammermoor, The Daughter of the Regiment, and other works are now. For some reason—hard to divine—La favorite fell off the map.
And Donizetti’s last opera, Dom Sébastien, has never been on the map, which is just weird. It is a winner.
In any case, Mishka Rushdie Momen played In the Mists, admirably. Her reading was unusually inward. I had the impression of a person working out a poetic puzzle. Her concentration was remarkable.
That is an interesting quality in performance: concentration. Don’t all performers concentrate? Yes, but some seem to concentrate—stay focused—more than others. A prime example would be Igor Levit, the Russian-German pianist.
In Schumann’s “Prophet Bird,” from Forest Scenes, Ms. Momen did some nice flitting around. Mysterious and beautiful flitting. Sticking with birds, she played “Oiseaux tristes,” from Ravel’s Miroirs. This was probably her finest playing of the day: exquisite. In another piece from Miroirs, “Alborada del gracioso,” she included the necessary spice.
She played an encore, announcing a dedication beforehand. She had India on her mind, and wanted to dedicate her encore to the great many in that country suffering from COVID-19. Her words were dignified and touching, and so was her playing, of Schubert’s Hungarian Melody in B minor, D. 817.
It is a pleasure to hear interesting and excellent repertoire from a pianist of refinement, as from Wigmore Hall on this occasion.