It’s that time of year again! The Vancouver Recital Society typically assigns a segment of each concert season to showcasing the most promising young pianists on the international stage, and the parade has begun. Last season, it was Yekwon Sunwoo, George Li and Zhang Zuo; this year, Hungarian Zoltán Fejérvári has already offered idiomatic Bartok and poetic Schumann. Now it is Filippo Gorini’s turn, a young Italian who has come into the spotlight quickly, not least because Alfred Brendel was sufficiently astonished by the pianist’s account of Beethoven’s ’Diabelli Variations’ in a private recital that he offered to teach him. His subsequent recording of this work for Alpha has received very strong acclaim. The current concert equally left no doubt about the talents of this young 23-year-old winner of the 2015 Telekom-Beethoven Competition, revealing a pianist with remarkable keyboard control who can penetrate works with unusual clarity and long-term vision. Gorini seems to have a natural attraction to structurally rigorous and complex pieces, and this traversal of Beethoven, Bartók and Stockhausen managed to create the feeling that each work might be a chip off the same stone.
Gorini has a full, rich tone and can pull out considerable power from his instrument: in fact, his pedaling was sometimes too strong for this particular acoustic. But it is the pianist’s firmness of articulation – almost chiselled and block-like at times – and his pristine control of dynamics that constitute the key ingredients into his overall transparency and sense of line. This is not to suggest that his playing is cold – there is often an underlying warmth and carefully cultivated flow in his expression -- but it is definitely on the analytical side, wooed more by the joys of structural probing and architectural delineation than by romantic gesture or caprice. Gorini plays with both seriousness and gravity, and his recognition of the tonal synergies in the music and the pristine relation between top and bottom voices define his presentation more than lyrical expansions of phrase or sentient colour.
It wasn’t that many years ago that Beethoven’s last sonatas were verbotene frucht for younger pianists, but not anymore. The pianist confidently launched into Op. 110 and Op. 111 with many of the above virtues. He was most successful in the uncompromising terrain of the final sonata. The commanding strength of its opening movement was integrated admirably with its telling changes in pulse, while the endless reaches of the Arietta found both concentration and inevitability. The pianist did not seek extremes in the latter, yet he managed a discrete underlying flow that spawned a fugue of redeeming character, while the famous ‘jazzy’ sections were given just enough bend and hint of off-centre to be effective. The pianissimo playing at the end was very special, finding an almost perfect Elysian stillness. Gorini’s emphasis throughout seemed to be on musical coherence, free of any desire to highlight the eccentricities of Beethoven’s last days, and this purity of this expression was refreshing. When played like this, one can only have a renewed awe about the sheer perfection of this sonata – a masterpiece which possesses not one note too many or too few.
The pianist’s block-like articulation and strong tonal weight did not fare as well in the opening Moderato cantabile of Op. 110: playing of intelligence, surely, but not quite fluent or expressive enough. One does not have to turn this movement into a fantasia (though many have tried), but it does require a cunning sense of flow, textural colour and lyrical undulation. While one could sense Gorini’s ultimate design for the work, his attempt here turned out more on the bold and purposive side, often substituting angular transitions for more seamless ones, and not seeking out all the movement’s emotional corners. The following Allegro also seemed somewhat hasty and did not leave a full imprint. This sonata was played at the opening of the recital, which may explain some of its interpretative uncertainties. The remainder, however, displayed estimable line and involvement through its sublime arioso sections and the two fugues, duplicating many of the strengths of the Op. 111. This where I first recognized how much the pianist sustains his narrative line through chiseled dynamic gradations, interestingly creating the impression that every note played bears some critical relation to its predecessor.
The treatment of the two shorter works was most rewarding. The Bartók Piano Sonata (1926) starts off with all the insistent, barbaric folk rhythms that one recognizes from the composer’s First Piano Concerto, and the pianist was stellar in exposing the rhythmic pulse and structural integrity of its opening Allegro. Here there was both pianistic confidence and stunning tonal weight: the pianist’s block-square precision fit perfectly. The following ‘night music’ received a distilled treatment of considerable depth, while the final movement brought all the flurry of notes it should. Objectively, it would be difficult to think of a much better presentation – clear, tonally prodigious, with almost perfectly judged tempos. Perhaps all that was missing was a more identifiable Hungarian accent. In keeping with the Stockhausen’s fascination with ‘sounds’, his Klavierstück IX mainly presents repeated four-note chords that ever diminish in volume and projection. Gorini’s ability to instate these micro-gradations was almost perfect. Indeed, from a technical standpoint, everything in this recital flirted with perfection. The four stimulating encores comprised 2 Capriccios from Brahms Op. 116, a Schubert Impromptu, and the Contrapunctus I from Bach’s Art of the Fugue.
So, is the young Filippo Gorini astonishing? Absolutely!