Emmanuel Despax (piano)
October 10 2021
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
Emmanuel Despax strikes an ideal balance between visceral excitement and Classical restraint
Very sensibly the audience didn’t push Emmanuel Despax for an encore after his recital at the Royal Concert Hall on Sunday morning. It wasn’t just that it would have seemed greedy: it would have been downright cruel. Here was a man who, in 60 minutes, had scaled some of the highest peaks of the piano repertoire and deserved some rest and recuperation.
The first piece on his programme was enough to prove his fearless credentials: Busoni’s transcription for piano of Bach’s mighty Chaconne for solo violin. In its original form it is the Everest of violin pieces: long, ultra-complex and technically fiendish. In 1893 Busoni (possibly the world’s greatest pianist of his day) decided to reimagine the piece as if it had been written for organ and then transcribe that imagined version for piano. Strange but true. The result was a virtuoso showpiece of mind-boggling dimensions, with lots of rapid octave passagework and a whole host of dazzling pianistic effects. Emmanuel Despax was clearly in his element, taking each challenge in his stride, giving a stunning display of sonorous virtuosity.
Liszt’s Ballade No 2 isn’t exactly a stroll in the park either. Whether it’s based on an actual story or not (Despax suggested the ancient tale of Hero and Leander) it certainly seems to describe events and emotions on an epic scale: barbarian invasions, cities in flame, that sort of thing. It is another work which demands superlative technique from its performer, as well as a vivid sense of narrative drama. Despax came to the fight well-armed with powerful broken octaves, sky-rocketing scales and much else that was dazzlingly difficult. But there was much lyricism too, especially when a magical, almost operatic melody, was conjured from the dramatic turmoil.
The recital finished with yet more epic adventure: Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, so challenging that even its composer thought he’d gone too far. ‘Let the devil play the stuff!” is what Schubert reportedly cried when he once got lost in its labyrinthine complexities. Emmanuel Despax had no such problems, striking at the heart of the Fantasy with playing of poise and strength, striking an ideal balance between visceral excitement and Classical restraint.
Emmanuel Despax, piano, in the first of the 2021/22 Sunday morning piano recitals at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall