“A fine and varied performance…..there was fire as well as poetry… some fiery and tempestuous playing interspersed with some elegantly etched filigree”

Wigmore Hall

J Brahms – Variations on an Original Theme Op 21 No. 1
Clara Schumann – Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann Op 20
Helmut Lachenmann – Five Variations on a Theme of Schubert
Ravel – Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (1911)
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 8 in B Flat Op 84

Fiachra Garvey is a young Irish pianist who won first prize at last year’s Jacques Samuel Intercollegiate Piano Competition and prior to that prizes at the Dublin and EU piano competitions. He has just released his first CD featuring music by Barber, Debussy and Schumann and, like previous winners of the Jacques Samuel competition, seems destined for great things. His recital was well structured, focusing first on the Brahms, Robert and Clara Schumann triangle, then moving on to two works influenced by Schubert and concluding with the last of Prokofiev’s ‘War Sonatas’. Garvey introduced each of the pieces from the platform.

It has always been a mystery to me why Brahms’ so called “Philosophical Variations” are not played more often because it is an intensely lyrical and beautiful work. Garvey opened well, conjuring a warm autumnal glow from his Fazioli and using judicious rubato to highlight some of the gorgeous harmonies and inner voices. Many of the phrases were lovingly caressed and tone production throughout was exemplary. Careful thought was given to the tempo relationships with the variations unfolding in a highly spontaneous and natural way. There was fire as well as well as poetry in this performance, particularly in the Allegro non troppo variations and a series of vivid tonal contrasts helped to bring out the distinctive character of each new section. I wondered if Garvey might have perhaps done a little more to lighten the textures in one or two places but this is a minor quibble.

Many people forget that as well as being one of the world’s then foremost concert pianists and a muse to both Schumann and Brahms, Clara Schumann was also a talented composer. The theme for her Opus 20 variations is the fourth movement of her husband’s Bunte Blätter and the theme was here played with an understated feeling of nostalgia and wistfulness. The variations which followed were more overtly brilliant than those by Brahms with Garvey giving us some fiery and tempestuous playing interspersed with some elegantly etched filigree. He was able to take us through the various mercurial mood shifts (Robert was not the only member of the family who composed in this way!) using a range of tone colours and was on top of the virtuoso demands of the piece.

Schubert’s Waltz in C sharp minor provides the theme for the Lachenmann variations while Schubert also provided the inspiration for Ravel’s more famous waltzes. Garvey brought out the biting and playful elements of the Lachenmann and the Bartokian percussiveness while the slower variations had a gorgeous resonance and easy narrative flow. He deployed a silky touch for the Ravel, making the most of the shifting textures and sonorities. The slower waltzes were evocative and elegantly shaded while the faster numbers took us whirling around the ballroom. I particularly liked the last two waltzes: Garvey played the penultimate piece with real gusto while the sense of the disintegration in the final piece was conveyed beautifully. I wondered if Garvey might have perhaps used the Fazioli to give us a wider range of more finely graded dynamics, particularly in the softer sections of the work.

Prokofiev’s Eighth Piano Sonata is one of the great solo piano sonatas of the 20th Century; it was first performed in December 1944 by Emil Gilels. The opening movement is marked Andante dolce and Garvey brought a wonderful feeling of intensity to the outer sections, slightly exaggerating some of the phrases to give the movement a sense of foreboding. Prokofiev’s sulphurous diabolism was bubbling ominously beneath the surface, adding to the sense of disquiet. Prokofiev shows his gift for melody in the slow movement and Garvey handled the various transformations of the theme beautifully. The Vivace finale was handled with steely fingered resolve with Garvey dispatching the rapid passage work briskly and incisively and keeping the rhythms very taut. Prokofiev’s black humour and sense of parody and the grotesque were all lurking mischievously in the background. I always think this is the most demanding of the three ‘War sonatas’ to interpret and make sense of but Garvey was clearly on top of the piece and gave a first rate performance.

As an encore Garvey played a nocturne by Irish composer John Field and was awarded for his efforts with a standing ovation from the audience.