It is difficult to imagine anything better than having one of the world’s leading interpreters of the Beethoven piano sonatas perform three of the composer’s most popular ones in a single concert. Irish pianist John O’Conor performed the Pathétique, Moonlight and Appassionata in the first piano recital at The Boston Conservatory’s renovated Seully Hall on Tuesday night, as part of the school’s Piano Master Series. It was a standing-room only sold-out performance, with a passionate and eager crowd such as you normally see, say, at the Moscow Conservatory.
O’Conor exceeded even these expectations. His Beethoven is brash and brilliant, coarse and unpolished yet Shakespearean in his understanding, and occasionally disarmingly sweet. O’Conor’s Beethoven is both lyrical and savage, played not just with the fingers and frontal cortex but with his entire body. He trusts Beethoven to be a great phenomenologist of human being. His playing is visceral, from the gut, played from the pre-linguistic brain, an earthy, human Beethoven without courtly varnish and not needing it.
Rather than try to convey the full plenitude of the evening, I will comment on a few moments that stood out.
In the first movement of the Pathétique the slow Grave section was given a pained, searching, questioning feeling thanks to a remarkable use of silences, especially in the final recurrence in the coda. The answering allegro, anxious and struggling, was in dialogue with those dark silences, integrating the movement and making sense of the triple return of the introductory statement. In the hymn-like cantabile second movement, O’Conor emphasized the dance rhythms in the final return of the rondo theme. This served to connect it to the slight playfulness he gave the opening of the final movement by using a slight hesitation, almost a rubatto, in the statement of the theme—a Mozartean touch that amplified the contrast of light and shadow in the rondo theme and in the intervening episodes.
The Moonlight was played with only minimal pauses between the movements. The soft dreaminess of the first movement, tinged with fatalism, was brought out with a noble touch and seductive phrasing. The seductive mood continued into the second movement, organically solving the recurrent problem of having the off-beat scherzo seem out of place. The ensuing surging, explosive presto agitato finale—raw, visceral, mysterious, propelled by a force of nature—broke through the overly-saturated reverie to reach an authentic fulfillment.
The opening statement of the Appassionata sets the tone for the entire piece and O’Conor nailed it, conveying foreboding and “wild surmise.” This was a Beethoven set free by transgression, besieged by despair but also by grace. The monumental struggle inherent in this music became an inner one, a fight to unlock creative demons, ending the first movement in an inconclusive deadlock. It made sense then that the statement of the theme in the Andante was forceful and assertive, leading inexorably to the outburst of the Allegro finale. Most memorably, the concluding Presto became a form of Todtentanz, here as a celebration of life while being hurled toward death.
As an encore, O’Conor gave us a bitingly sarcastic, Swiftian reading of the Six Ecossaises, WoO 83, in Beethoven’s original version rather than the more commonly heard Busoni arrangement.