Review: James Lisney at the Portsmouth Menuhin Room

James Lisney (piano), Portsmouth Menuhin Room, June 3:
Beethoven 33 Variations on a Waltz of Diabelli, Op.120

There are two reviews, read David Green’s first then Diana Swann’s.

If Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations were a horse they’d be by The Art of Fugue out of A Musical Joke. Beethoven seems to have thought the challenge of writing a variation on the waltz beneath him but then changed his mind and made an extravagant job of doing 33 of them and ‘having a laugh’ while he did it.

To stretch the turf analogy on Derby day, James Lisney rode Diabelli, a horse with talent to burn but with ideas of its own, like Frankie Dettori, finessing an impressive win from a demanding ride. It’s a mischievous, rascally thing making endless jokes from what is really only three notes most of the time. Beethoven is showing off and won’t stop. He goes on long after anybody else would have thought enough was enough, like a legendary Ken Dodd performance.

James was bold and almost brash, bringing out the caricature of the big gestures and grandiose mannerisms almost as if Beethoven was making fun of some of his own more grandstanding pieces. Sometimes deliberately simplistic and at others a pastiche of military styles, he eventually throws in an impersonation of Bach that is so close it could almost be put into The Well-Tempered Klavier and the likes of me would be none the wiser.

The problem, if there is one, with this is that if in the later stages Beethoven intended some serious reflection along the lines of ‘our revels now are ended’, it was too late. We have too long been going along with the joke to be expected to suddenly become all elegiac and Grosse Fuge about it. We’ve noticed the Bach, there must be some Mozart and so we could be forgiven for wondering if Haydn, Scarlatti or even maybe Schubert are hidden in these knockabout games. Tender as some later passages are, it’s difficult not to hear them as tongue-in-cheek, too.

Many great works of literature are (allegedly) comic – Ulysses, Don Quixote, even Hamlet can be at times – but, even given Mozart’s operas, witty, untroubled Haydn and Erik Satie, I’m not convinced music does it so well. James Lisney put in a blitzing, hugely impressive performance that was much appreciated by a well-informed audience, and me, too, but it was irony, satire and in-jokes that are something that words, for once, are better at than music. However, as long as you are in on the joke, it’s tremendous entertainment light years ahead of those crowding Guildhall Square dressed unironically, as far as I could tell, for a Comic Book convention.

Zaniness must have its limits and Beethoven might have broken other boundaries but not those. In order to restore some sanity and heart’s ease, though, James treated us to an encore of some Bach arranged by Alfred Cortot. One is glad of an excursion into mind-boggling variations from time to time but it’s good to arrive back home safely.

I found, as part of the homework I did ahead of today, that Wikipedia tells us that the Diabelli Variations are, considered to be one of the greatest sets of variations for keyboard along with J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

As it happens, that’s what’s up next in the Menuhin Room series, on July 1st with Danny Driver so we are lucky to have such a glorious opportunity to compare and contrast. For a certain kind of some of us, that’s unmissable.     

David Green

And Diana Swann writes:

A lunchtime recital consisting entirely of Beethoven’s final major masterpiece for the piano is a rare event.  However, despite a sunny Saturday beckoning us beach-wards, there was a respectable-sized audience for James Lisney’s performance of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. 

From the initial statement of the waltz theme, we knew we were in safe hands; every detail that would inspire a later variation was clear.  Yet James avoided the trap of presenting sets of variations as a series of fragments, but welded them into a well-punctuated and coherent whole. 

There was so much to admire throughout:  there was subtle voicing, not only in the more obviously contrapuntal variations and the Fughetta, but also in freer variations, like Var.12.  James clearly enjoyed the Menuhin Room’s re-born Steinway, producing beautiful cantabile throughout, notably in Var. 3-4 and Var. 8 as well as in the hushed variations that precede the great Fugue (Var.32). 

Many of the slower Variations can seem weighed down with their progressive intensity as in the almost static Var.20 when Beethoven’s limitless harmonic explorations foretell atonality.  James paced this variation particularly well. 

Some variations burst in with an explosivity that was never oafish.  In Var.16 and 17, James’ virtuosity was notable, yet never used solely for display. Beethoven’s humour can sometimes verge on the practical joke; but here jokes became wit, as in Var. 13 where the comic long rests and the many pp interjections are thrown in as smiling commentary. 

From the stifled sighs of Var. 29 onwards, Beethoven becomes increasingly intense.  The wonderfully gentle canon of Var. 30 leads into the Bach-like obbligato threnody of Var.31.   Here, for my taste, James’ expressive rubato robbed this poignant Variation of some of its forward movement.

James presented the massive Fugue that follows as Haydn-esque in its spirit and energy.  He differs from many other pianists because he rejects their view of this Fugue as an angry Beethoven shaking his fist at the world.  He found warmth and joy in it most convincingly.  On reaching the graceful final minuet, he discarded the disembodied disappearance into the ether favoured by some other pianists, making sure that Beethoven left us with a peaceful acceptance of life. 

It was a memorably moving, performance; all aspects of Beethoven as a human being, not a remote musical deity, were convincingly presented.  James Lisney is a pianist with something new and valuable to find in even the most revered masterpieces.  The audience sensed this and were riveted; not a cough to be heard and some well-deserved Bravos amongst the applause.

After a break James gave three young pianists a most valuable master class.  These master-classes are becoming a feature of the Menuhin Room concerts, and are proving a splendid encouragement to young pianists.  James was delightful in his humour and understanding, especially of the first small participant who had some trouble with her first piece, yet by the end she was sailing though her Mendelssohn.  He had some very pertinent comments to make about all aspects of performance. Always empathetic, he turned each class into a dialogue, putting all three players at ease whatever their standard, thus helping them to build on their strengths.

These concerts must surely become a lunch-time Saturday fixture.  The Menuhin Room is a wonderfully intimate setting for both piano recitals and chamber music.  Already there is a devoted core audience.  Why not shape Portsmouth’s cultural history by joining them for the next event which is a performance of the ‘other’ mega-set of variations to look forward to.  Bach’s Goldberg variations will be played by Danny Driver on July 1st at 12.30.  He too will follow it by a master-class.

Event Search