By her own admission, Maria João Pires dislikes playing solo recitals as they can be a touch isolating. She much prefers the sharing of stages with other musicians be they in chamber music or with an orchestra in concertos.
At 75, she is one of the few master musicians around still in active musical life. Although in 2010 she had said she had cut back performances after some sixty years in the public eye she was not yet ready for retirement. Therefore it is true that one may need travel to hear her in recital as such appearances are few and far between at least in the West. Luckily for us she made a rare appearance in a solo recital in Pune on 23rd February 2020 during a recent visit to India. Maria João Pires is a name well known and close to the hearts of many of her audiences here. Her large discography especially for Deutsche Grammophon has been available through retailers across the country in days of yore. In this, the 250th birth anniversary of Beethoven, we are likely to hear much that is good, bad or indifferent. One thing’s for sure we will never hear Beethoven played with such humility, musical understanding and sheer technical conviction than that by Ms. Pires. Not to belittle her two appearances in Mumbai, one playing Beethoven’s third piano concerto and her recital with conductor-violinist Augustin Dumay which were both extraordinary in their own ways it was her solo recital performed in Pune on that was a red-letter day.
Piano cognoscenti from Mumbai along with the much-spoiled denizens of Pune flocked in large numbers to fill the capacious Mazda Hall in Pune’s sophisticated Camp district to capacity. Many had to be accommodated with last minute additions of chairs; no one was turned away. Ms. Pires rose to the occasion taking even the hardened critics on an imaginative journey of flights of fantasy. But when she does appear, albeit rarely one is left completely immersed in greatness interpretatively as much compositionally.
The chosen programme consisted of the last two sonatas of Beethoven and two Impromptus of Schubert. Positioned between the two Beethoven sonatas Ms. Pires chose No. 1 in F minor and No. 2 in A flat major from the op. 142 set. The F minor piece is like an extended sonata form movement. Under less creative interpreters this rather long piece can over stay its welcome. The A flat impromptu is a graceful Minuet and trio played here with, beauty of tone and a quietly inward luminosity.
However it was her playing of the last two piano sonatas of Beethoven that put the seal of authority to this concert. The 31st of his sonatas is in three movements and opens with a gentle immediately recognisable rocking theme in sonata form marked con amabilita. Right from the start the lyrical line was sustained through this movement marked moderato with a sure and gentle touch.
The perfectly judged demi semi quavers rippled underneath in quiet simplicity and perfect evenness of tempo without ever seeming to rush. The middle movement, a fast scherzo in duple time with a flying rapid trio was executed with spirit and elan. The finale comprising a slow recitative and arioso dolente, a fugue, a return arioso lament, and a second few built to a sublime conclusion.
And what of the last sonata the incomparable C minor work in two movements. The stormy and impassioned first movement abounds in diminished seventh chords heard initially in the opening slow introduction. Semi quaver passages often hurtling in unison across the key board make this a technical challenge which this pianist was more than equal to. Beethoven ends this movement with a Picardy third that directly prepares the major mode finale. The second and final movement, in C major is a set of five variations on a 16-bar theme with a final coda. He calls it an arietta with the tempo marking translated as “slowly, very simple and song like”. This music contains the final distillation of the composer’s thoughts on music and piano texture. Ms. Pires achieved heights of interpretation reserved only for the likes of the greatest. The last time I heard this sonata played with comparable greatness was when the great Hungarian pianist Annie Fischer played it in her Royal Festival Hall farewell recital in London in the late 1980’s; and that is saying a lot.