Monday night’s Great Performers Series concert was given by pianist Lars Vogt in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall in a program of Bach’s Goldberg Variations followed after the interval with Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op 111.
In the first half, Vogt delivered a performance of the Bach that was full of nuance, drama and character. The binary form of each variation, with its repeat of each section, was observed and Vogt found many variations of touch and tone within these repeats to provide variety for the listener. Further, he was able to explore certain dramatic groupings of variations to link and provide continuity between variations that had a vibrant character and then to separate those with more lyrical qualities.
For this reviewer, what was missing was not what was there on the surface or perhaps even a few levels below it. These seemingly static binary forms, with their repeat of the A section and then the B section often necessitates ornamentation or variations of touch and tone to provide differences and interest for the listener. But there is further magic in finding a way to travel through the repeated A and B sections without the sense that one is travelling through the same material again, and simply made different or ornamented. There is an emotional journey that, in the hands of a master performer, the binary form vanishes and one hears a through-composed work of incredible scope and magnitude. This is a greedy listener though and Bach’s music was given a top performance tonight, but it was not quite sublime or great.
The same can be said for the Beethoven. Here, Vogt was commanding in his big tone and musical discourse in the contrapuntal materials of the first movement. The emotional atmosphere charged and the turmoil of the opening equally neutralised by the dying away of the first movement. This was the most gripping playing of the evening. The second movement, its spiritual magic, Vogt captured but only just. Beethoven’s eternal pulse and those coloristic trills needed more sublime a treatment to create the height from which the theme could return at the end, now transfixed. Vogt received a much deserved standing ovation.