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Bach, Mozart and Schumann

Jill Crossland - Piano
Wigmore Hall 12 January 2007

Jill Crossland is widely celebrated as a Bach interpreter, yet on this showing it was her Mozart playing that deserved the highest plaudits. The first movement of his Sonata in B-flat K570 shimmered, with crystalline textures and superb rhythmic control. Crossland produced a firm, clear, non-percussive sound that seemed ideal for Mozart on the modern piano. (So many pianists resort to either overpedalling or the opposite of dry, monochromatic paleness.) The second movement was beautifully voiced and immaculately pedalled with no recourse to that over-sweet syrupy legato that some pianists favour. The C minor middle section made use of rubato in a way that might be frowned upon in a conservatoire class, but was highly effective in its expression. The third movement was charming and care-free, reminding me of Horszowski, one of my favourite Mozart interpreters.

Crossland is a pianist of superlative talent, with a wide palette of colours at her command. The question is whether one agrees with how she chooses to use them. In my opinion her approach to the Mozart Sonata was irreproachable, but her other interpretations were more controversial.

The Mozart D minor Fantasy was certainly a fantasy! At the opening I was initially puzzled by her agogic delays at the peaks of phrases, but grew to understand their point as Crossland demarcated the opening from the next section. The opening became an ‘entracte', a microcosm in which the stop-start rubato seemed justified. The second section was very agitato; again somewhat unfashionable, but very effective. The D major section that followed was simple and elegant, carefree after the preceding intensity. As a whole the interpretation was enjoyable to listen to and thought-provoking, but certainly very different to other performances that I have heard.

The Bach and Schumann I didn't enjoy as much as the Mozart, although the Siciliano from the Flute Sonata BWV1031, arranged by Kempff, was intoxicatingly performed. The romantic transcription style was thoroughly captured, with imaginative voicing and pedalling. Who needs a flute?

Our opinions on how to play Bach separate us all, and I am no different to the vast majority of pianists in having my own agenda! In listening to Crossland's performances of the 2nd Partita in C minor BWV 826 and a selection from the Well Tempered Clavier, I found myself questioning my prejudices, faced with someone who had spent much more time with the music coming to different conclusions.

The prelude of the Partita opened the concert with a muscular sound and somewhat relaxed dotted rhythms. The following two sections displayed many colours, but also Crossland's preference to contrast large sweeps of material at the expense of small-scale motivic articulation. The Allemande was beautifully played, rightfully taking its place as the spiritual core of the work. The other movements slightly baffled me, as the dance elements were pushed to the background to make way for a romantic and rhapsodic style. The last two movements sounded hurried (running much faster than the restrained Courante) and I could not make out any details. In the Capriccio I heard the rising 4th very clearly, but nothing else other than a whirl of semiquavers.

The preludes and fugues also provoked a mixed response. Many of the fugues began with great energy only to get slower later on, and I grew impatient with Crossland's style of ending movements, breaking the pulse at the cadence in a very strange way that did not lead to a satisfying conclusion. I very much enjoyed the prelude from the Book 1 C# major, which was rhythmically vibrant and colourful. The accompanying fugue featured a wide variety of articulations, but seemed to slow down. The F major fugue from Book 1 alone featured a consistent articulation that I could identify.

I also felt that Crossland tended to over-favour the treble voice. For my tastes I would have preferred to hear more left hand throughout the Bach and Schumann. The D major prelude from Book 2 did feature a lot of bass at the beginning, but this is not a particularly interesting line. The subject articulation of the accompanying fugue kept changing, and I couldn't understand what effect this was designed to achieve. The G major from Book 2 was idiosyncratic; a very imaginative approach to the prelude that I enjoyed, but the textures of the fugue seemed obscured.

I am all for imaginative Bach playing, and I prefer to be puzzled than bored, but I do not understand why Crossland made some of these decisions. In some instances they seemed to go against the most interesting aspects of the music.

The Schumann Kinderszenen was a good foil for Crossland's rhapsodic approach. I liked her rubato and her engagement with Schumann's notational eccentricities, but would have liked more projected bass-lines throughout. There are often several lines of harmonic interest in these pieces, but Crossland seemed most concerned with the treble and the tenor. The exception to this was Furchtenmachen, which had a wonderful sense of dialogue. Crossland splits the hands a lot, which is something that I like (after all, we all listen to Michelangeli and Rubinstein don't we?) but seems to be very controversial in ‘official' piano circles. My favourite movements were the last two. Kind im Einschlummern had an exquisitely crafted ending, and Der Dichter spricht was very eloquent - what a pity that the audience broke the spell with their clapping before the mood had dissipated.

We were treated to a remarkable rendition of the Schumann Arabeske as an encore. I was strongly reminded of Ilona Eibenschutz's recording, with its fantastical rubato and sweep. I wish that more people played Schumann with such abandon. (Though again I wanted more bass!!!) The concert was well-attended and received.

Aleks Szram