Alessandro Taverna may not yet be a household name in the UK but this Italian virtuoso has a growing international reputation which was enhanced last year by an impressive recording of piano sonatas by Nikolai Medtner. In what promised to be a rewarding evening his University of Southampton: Turner Sims debut recital on Saturday was built on the more familiar names of Chopin, Rachmaninov and Ravel. In the end there were mixed results, but barn-storming performances of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and La Valse. Both were stupendous.
Placing these two demanding pieces in any programme is challenge enough and then positioning them to follow one another in the second half made for an unusually ambitious and taxing recital. It was, with hindsight, no great surprise that Taverna approached Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 3 in B minor (which began the evening) with some restraint; his playing at times never quite finding the emotional drama implicit in the opening Allegro maestoso. Had there been also a wider tonal palette and less generalised dynamics the density of the piano writing might not have seemed quite so leaden.The Scherzo, suitably nimble-fingered, would have been more persuasive if Taverna had unleashed some explosive energy which in turn might have created a more striking contrast with the nocturne-like Largo. Here, its glorious melody was elegantly fashioned and the movement’s lyric intensity was touching. Of the last movement (regarded as one of Chopin’s most formidable finales) he comfortably dispatched its leaping octaves and cascading semi-quavers, and while there were some dramatic flashes, it was a sense of moderation that marked this performance overall.
There followed Rachmaninov‘s Piano Sonata no. 2in B flat minor (written in 1913) played here in the revised version of 1931. It is a considerably darker work than Chopin’s and gave Taverna an opportunity to show a broader emotional range particularly in its restless opening movement. Poetic sensitivity coloured the quasi improvisatory second, a ruminative movement that even with its quirky harmonic twists borders on schmaltz. He brought some considerable energy to the finale – and while his facility was impressive it was clear he was holding back for the grander things to come.
After the interval it was the three-part tale of seduction, death and haunting apparition that is Gaspard de la nuit which most clearly demonstrated Taverna’s remarkable talents. Ravel claimed that the challenges in this triptych were of “transcendental difficulty”, but if so they were more than met by this young soloist in a near-flawless performance. In the opening “Ondine” the deadly water nymph’s melody emerged as spun silk, effortlessly weighted against its shimmering accompaniment and the incessant tolling bell in “Le gibet” was supported by a finely judged tone throughout. “Scarbo” was dazzling.
Most pianists would have ended a recital there but not so with this rising star. Ravel’s La Valse is better known in its orchestral garb so it was a welcome treat to hear this evocation of pre-war Vienna played as a piano solo. It was especially good to hear the Steinway’s rich sonorities and its percussive action served to underline Ravel’s apocalyptic vision. Given that this was at the end of his recital Taverna found astonishing reserves of energy and seemed to play it with breathtaking ease and authority. He had further energy left to deliver a wonderfully infectious encore by Friedrich Gulda from his Play Piano Play anthology. On balance, a fine evening with some superb playing.