MALCOLM TROUP hears
'the art of the piano reborn'
in Syrian pianist Riyad Nicolas
Almost as much a sign of the times, and holding out no less hope for an eventual cultural rapprochement than Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, is the incomparable Syrian pianistRiyad Nicholas, who was presented on 1 December 2010 by the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe for the second time at St James' Piccadilly, London, UK.
News had been quick to travel, so this time his public had swollen to bursting point. Even without that previous clarion-call, his programme itself was enough to fling down the gauntlet to all Londoners with an eye and an ear for any new entrant to the list of front-rank virtuosi. He began with a lapidarian account of Beethoven's Sonata Op 110 in which each note justified its specific weight in the overall scheme, so that the structural relationship of the glorious fugue to the opening theme of the first movement was never in doubt.
From there, we moved on to one of the finest performances of Ravel's finger-crunching Gaspard de la Nuit which these old ears of mine, accustomed to my teacher Gieseking's, have ever experienced -- in which sheer note-accuracy, so often sacrificed to the keyboard-vaulting demands of Scarbo, went without saying in the blinding unity of conception which held us on tenterhooks from start to finish.
Whether the piano roared like Niagara, inundating us with towering torrents of sounds, or sang out in one burst of unaccompanied song as in Ondine, everything had its part to play in this phenomenal interpretation, hardly giving us quarter to catch our breaths until the last snatched-off tremolandi. Never have the pianist's protean kinesics, the tonal implications of Ravel's giant canvas and the drama of the interpretation been so ideally matched.
But even before we had time to draw breath, this infernal sound-sorceror (who resembles something between a Lowry overgrown stick-man and the young Paganini of legend with long prehensile arms and legs which seem to be reaching out to his instrument as if to tangle it in their tentacles) was bearing down upon us again, this time with Ligeti's typically polymetricFanfares -- in very sooth a fanfare to a whole new redefinition of what pianistic virtuosity is now called upon to be in our 21st century. As he thundered up and down the keyboard, trying out every possible permutation of Ligeti's opening strains, we were left in no doubt that the art of the piano had been born again -- as momentous and apocalyptic as the long-foretold birth of the Prophet might be from the baggy folds of Saracen breeches.