MALCOLM TROUP marvels anew at
the artistry of Julian Jacobson
A few nights ago [Wednesday 9 December 2009] a new talk-of-the-town known as The Forge -- a combined eating-place and venue for the performing arts in North London -- drew me away from the overrated centre to partake of a piano recital by Julian Jacobson whose extraordinary powers as an interpreter of the classics, not to speak of French and contemporary, is so well-kept a musical secret as to border on public scandal. Like the rest of his determined following, this was a case of your critic having to go in search of him rather than the reverse!
The inviting concert-room, with a capacity for some sixty to eighty where we forgathered, is reassuringly clad in wood -- something between a bullring and Shakespearean theatre-in-the-round only it is square or rather rectangular in shape. Now, whereas we are told that the most perfect acoustics are still to be found in a rectangular cigar-box-like space, here the cigar-box is stood on end so that the ideal place for both pianist and audience to capture the sounds being produced would be somewhere near the apex of the lofty ceiling. Never mind, the sterling worth of what is on offer fully makes up for the somewhat brittle acoustics.
Julian Jacobson began his opening Haydn Variations in F minor as Schnabel used to begin the Beethoven G major Concerto -- as if it had been sounding for some time already before our ears had become aware of it. The thirteenth-century Notre Dame School had a term for it: the 'beginning before the beginning' where a chord would be allowed to vibrate before the individual voices broke off to begin their cosmic dance. In this case, too, the music stole upon our ears sotto voce with Jacobson holding on deliciously to the repeated top Cs. Gradually lines thickened into textures, pianos into fortes, only to dwindle away again with the final top Fs stretched almost beyond bearing. Inbetween, Jacobson's loving attention to detail threatened to rob us once or twice of what Schönberg used to call the Hauptstimme. The arpeggiated flourishes -- a new invention of Papa Haydn -- were like the curlicues on Dickensian notaries' signatures. The performance tended toward the chaste and dispassionate, telling us little about the novel treatment we find Haydn applying here to the double-variation form.
The same classical feeling of being 'recollected in tranquillity, all passion spent' marked the Schumann Kreisleriana which followed, although Jacobson had whetted our appetite for the quirky and volatile with his reading about E T A Hofmann before beginning. For all that it was faultless, it became a sketch -- a fine line-drawing -- of what this music contains without the volatility or spontaneity to fill out its elusive contours. In this way, a great artist like Jacobson can at times be his own worst enemy because even when he falls short of his mark, high as that might be, he always reveals what that mark is or might have been. Most pianists would have been content to get anywhere near it but having heard Jacobson's Fantasiestücke in the Wigmore Hall in 2007 I knew better and set it down to the dry acoustics.
With the second half, any such reservations were burnt to a frazzle in the white-hot heat of Prokofiev's Sixth Sonata. Here the forbearance of the performer gradually unbuttoned to the full, giving almost corporeal expression to Prokofiev's dancing strains. Once entered into his stride in the opening pages, this became playing of masterly accomplishment, making the most of Prokofiev's abrupt and often sardonic mood-swings. The capacity public responded in kind and gave Jacobson no peace until he had mollified them with Ravel's lilting Menuet sur le nom 'Haydn' -- all liquid poetry in motion -- and sent them on their way with a Biedermeyer Christmas-stocking-filler by Mendelssohn.
Again we ask ourselves, why is this major British voice in world-ranking pianism, so justly celebrated by his faithful following, not being fêted to the skies by a wider public instead of being let out only occasionally to provide a masterclass for all the rest of us pianists?
Copyright © 13 December 2009 Malcolm Troup,