Samson Tsoy – A poet speaks at the Wigmore Hall and a star is born

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel Op. 24 (1861)

4 Klavierstücke Op. 119 (1893) Intermezzo in B minor,Intermezzo in E minor ,Intermezzo in C ,Rhapsody in E flat.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Piano Sonata in B flat D960 (1828) I. Molto moderato
II. Andante sostenuto
III. Scherzo. Allegro vivace con delicatezza – Trio IV. Allegro ma non troppo

Samson Tsoy opening his recital with the Brahms Handel Variations followed by the four Klavierstucke op 119.
Even the hall thought it must be a mistake and had to make an announcement to confirm the order that Samson had obviously communicated previously.
A very bold move until we heard this early Brahms masterpiece in Samson’s hands played with such sensitivity and gentle luminosity where usually we are assaulted by robust ‘orchestral’ sound and strenuous virtuosity.
This was quite a revelation as he moved from one variation to another with ravishingly delicate playing of exquisite tonal colour.There was grandeur and dynamism when called for but the overall impression was that this is the same ethereal world of his later miniature masterpieces of op 117,18 and 19.
Schubert’s last Sonata was played with gentle authority of great aristocratic poise and poignancy.
Momentary flashes of ‘storm und drang’were short lived as Schubert’s profoundest of utterings were given all the time needed to ravish and seduce the senses for the last time.
The Impromptu in E flat played as an encore produced streams of sounds of pure gold as the jeux perlé notes were shaped with the same sensitivity and loving care that had been the hallmark of a recital dedicated to pure beautiful music making.An ovation,whistles and cat calls were greeted at last with a smile from this very dedicated young artist.

The opening theme was played with an unusual sensitivity and very subtle flexibility that immediately caught my attention.It was to be held with baited breath until the final tumultuous notes of the Fugue.Every variation was a revelation,as if the notes were still wet on the page,The silence too before the music box variation n. 22 towards the end was played as if in a wondrous dream of nostalgic recollection .It was the magic touch of a deeply committed artist.The first four variations were played with a liquid legato with cascades of arabesques in the second and deeply expressive fourth.Awakened by demonic octaves: dynamic and impressive as they burst onto this seemingly pastoral scene.Immediately contrasted with the mellifluous mysterious meanderings of the sixth and the very light rhythmic drive of the seventh and eighth.A subtle build up in intensity led to declamatory octaves phrases each one disappearing to oblivion with such nonchalant ease and grace.Cat and mouse delicately chasing up and down the keys with ‘kittenish’ playfulness.Delicacy and beauty followed and led to the gentle duet between fairy horns and flutes.There followed grandeur but with luminosity and very personal inflections.The pointed deep bass notes of the seventeenth was followed by the gentle pastoral cascades of notes in the eighteenth leading to the beautiful lilting ‘siciliano’ of the nineteenth .A very demonic build up followed with dry menacing staccato notes driving ever more excitedly with swirls of sounds like the west wind blowing.And after such tension the triumphant opening theme in all its glory ,worthy of Busonian exultation,came as such a cathartic relief.The bare notes of the fugue were like a window suddenly being opened and letting the blazing sun light dazzle us with Samson’s unrelenting technical prowess.The Great Gate of Kiev comes to mind as the chimes first in the right hand are answered by the left and accompanied by transcendental technical high jinx.Played with extraordinary architectural command of startling authority where even here he found a sense of colour and contrast that kept us on the edge of our seats until the final majestic chords.

The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, was written by in 1861. It consists of a set of twenty-five variations and a concluding fugue, based on a theme from Handel’s Harpsichord suite N.1 in B flat .Ranked by Tovey as “the half-dozen greatest sets of variations ever written”.They were written in September 1861 after Brahms, aged 28, abandoned the work he had been doing as director of the Hamburg women’s choir (Frauenchor) and moved out of his family’s cramped and shabby apartments in Hamburg to his own apartment in the quiet suburb of Hamm, initiating a highly productive period that produced “a series of early masterworks”.Written in a single stretch in September 1861,the work is dedicated to a “beloved friend”, Clara Schumann widow of Robert and was presented to her on her 42nd birthday, September 13.Brahms played the piece himself in his first solo performance in Vienna – even Wagner had to admit how much could still be done in the ‘old forms’. Brahms’s approach to variation writing is outlined in a number of letters. “In a theme for a set of variations, it is almost only the bass that has any meaning for me. But this is sacred to me, it is the firm foundation on which I then build my stories. What I do with a melody is only playing around … If I vary only the melody, then I cannot easily be more than clever or graceful, or, indeed, if full of feeling, deepen a pretty thought. On the given bass, I invent something actually new, I discover new melodies in it, I create.” The role of the bass is critical.

Op 119 is the last composition for solo piano by Brahms and was premiered in London in January 1894.In May 1893 Brahms wrote to his beloved Clara about the first intermezzo in B minor :”I am tempted to copy out a small piano piece for you, because I would like to know how you agree with it. It is teeming with dissonances! These may [well] be correct and [can] be explained—but maybe they won’t please your palate, and now I wished, they would be less correct, but more appetizing and agreeable to your taste. The little piece is exceptionally melancholic and ‘to be played very slowly’ is not an understatement. Every bar and every note must sound like a ritard[ando], as if one wanted to suck melancholy out of each and every one, lustily and with pleasure out of these very dissonances! Good Lord, this description will [surely] awaken your desire!”Samson gave us a moving glimpse of what Brahms had tried to put into words.There was a timeless luminosity to the gasps of sublime poetry that Brahms could miraculously convey in his old age.Have so few notes ever meant so much as in Samson’s sensitive fingers?Coming after the ‘barn storming’ young Brahms,Samson was immediately able to create a magic atmosphere with a Scriabinesque range of fluid sounds .Even the ‘poco agitato’ of the second intermezzo was bathed in pedal with the gentle ‘grazioso’ like a ray of light rising out of the mist.The third Intermezzo was also a ‘grazioso ‘ and ‘giocoso’ in the half light of dusk,rather than dawn,with the final swirls of notes played piano and the quixotic chords pianissimo ,as Brahms asks and rarely gets,with the final held pedal on the three last chords that were played with a real sense of awakening.A Rhapsody played with rhythmic drive even if the opening chords I found less rich in sound than i was expecting.It made an exciting contrast,though,to the mysterious held pedal a little later.The beautiful central section was played with a playful nonchalance ‘grazioso’ that brought a smile of whimsical capriciousness to Brahms’ last thoughts.

The last three sets of piano pieces, Op.117, 118 and 119, are linked by a certain personal intimacy, almost a secrecy of meaning. Brahms called the three pieces of Op. 117 ‘lullabies to my sorrows’, The pianist Ilona Eibenschütz on hearing Brahms wrote: ‘He played as if he were just improvising, with heart and soul, sometimes humming to himself, forgetting everything around him.’Fanny Davies wrote: ‘When Brahms played, one knew exactly what he intended to convey to his listeners: aspiration, wild fantastic flights, majestic calm, deep tenderness without sentimentality, delicate, wayward humour, sincerity, noble passion’.

In David Owen Norris’s refreshingly informed programme notes he talks about the sinister trill on the piano’s very bottom note being described by his grandmother as ‘the note the cat died on’.Someone must have trod on the cat’s tail today because the yelp she let out at the end of the ritornello of the first movement showed the intelligence of this young musician.Extra bars that are often left out because to return to the opening might seem excessive in an already long work!The sublime length of Schubert,sometime brought to the extremes by Richter,was today in Samson’s poetic hands only pure joy to hear again the sublime beauty of the exposition.The howl he let fire before the repeat only made us more aware of the sublime almost improvised creation that Schubert could envisage in his last days on earth.A magical performance of shape and colour and a sense of detail as in the combined tenor and soprano duet of the second subject that was sublime.There were true strokes of magic in the development that were quite breathtaking .The calm created before the storm was retraced with even more poignant delicacy as the melodic line floated on chords that were mere vibrations of sound.The Andante too was played with an architectural shape and direction without any exaggerations but allowing this sublime utterance to speak for itself.The Scherzo was indeed as Schubert asks ‘con delicatezza’ with also charm and subtlety.The sforzando/pianos of the Trio were not played like ‘spooks in the night’ but just pointed at with the same sheen and gloss that had been created in the Scherzo.The final Allegro was played at a leisurely pace with the call to arms of G interrupting so naturally the simple flow of Schubert’s timeless mellifluous outpouring .There was great passion and desperation in the first climax but it immediately dissolved into even more mischievous charm of disarming simplicity.The final climax was played with great brilliance and fire with the two last. Imperious chords placed with the aristocratic timing of a great artist in total command of his canvas.

Schubert’s last three piano sonatas D 958, 959 and 960, are his last major compositions for solo piano. They were written during the last months of his life, between the spring and autumn of 1828, but were not published until about ten years after his death, in 1838–39.Like the rest of Schubert’s piano sonatas, they were mostly neglected in the 19th century.By the late 20th century, however, public and critical opinion had changed, and these sonatas are now considered among the most important of the composer’s mature masterpieces.

The last year of Schubert’s life was marked by growing public acclaim for the composer’s works, but also by the gradual deterioration of his health. On March 26, 1828, together with other musicians in Vienna ,Schubert gave a public concert of his own works, which was a great success and earned him a considerable profit. In addition, two new German publishers took an interest in his works, leading to a short period of financial well-being. However, by the time the summer months arrived, Schubert was again short of money and had to cancel some journeys he had previously planned.Schubert had been struggling with syphilis since 1822–23, and suffered from weakness, headaches and dizziness. However, he seems to have led a relatively normal life until September 1828, when new symptoms appeared. At this stage he moved from the Vienna home of his friend Franz von Schober to his brother Ferdinand’s house in the suburbs, following the advice of his doctor; unfortunately, this may have actually worsened his condition. However, up until the last weeks of his life in November 1828, he continued to compose an extraordinary amount of music, including such masterpieces as the three last sonatas.The final sonata was completed on September 26, and two days later, Schubert played from the sonata trilogy at an evening gathering in Vienna.In a letter to Probst (one of his publishers), dated October 2, 1828, Schubert mentioned the sonatas amongst other works he had recently completed and wished to publish.However, Probst was not interested in the sonatas,and by November 19, Schubert was dead.In the following year, Schubert’s brother Ferdinand sold the sonatas’ to another publisher, Anton Diabelli , who would only publish them about ten years later, in 1838 or 1839.Schubert had intended the sonatas to be dedicated to Hummel, whom he greatly admired. Hummel was a leading pianist, a pupil of Mozart, and a pioneering composer of the Romantic style (like Schubert himself).However, by the time the sonatas were published in 1839, Hummel was dead, and Diabelli, the new publisher, decided to dedicate them instead to Robert Schumann,who had praised many of Schubert’s works in his critical writings.

Samson Tsoy standing in for an indisposed Mariam Batsashvili.She made her debut in the Wigmore Hall a few years ago and I was moved to write :’A star is born’ .I think the same could be said of Samson after tonight’s sublime performances.


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