wed 21/11/2018

Federico Colli, Wigmore Hall review – poised on the edge of the possible | reviews, news & interviews

Federico Colli, Wigmore Hall review – poised on the edge of the possible

Federico Colli, Wigmore Hall review – poised on the edge of the possible

The young Italian pianist brings a fantastical, probing imagination to a chewy programme

Federico Colli draws luminous marvels from the instrumentDvorakova Praha International Music Festival

The Italian pianist Federico Colli, 30, best known so far as winner of the 2012 Leeds International Piano Competition, last night arrived for his Wigmore Hall debut sporting an emerald-green cravat, but the sonic colours he magicked out of the piano quickly put its gleam in the shade. He is an artist developing at an impressive rate, and one of whom I think we’ll be hearing a great deal more in years ahead.

Colli had nevertheless picked a somewhat unforgiving programme – a first half entirely of Scarlatti and a second of chewingly unremitting D minor – and if at times the result was more impressive than it was emotionally satisfying, that was chiefly to do with the selection of pieces. 

Eleven Scarlatti sonatas on the trot might be standard enough fare for a CD (sure enough, Colli has one just out, reviewed on theartsdesk by Graham Rickson and pictured below), but in a recital it can be a strange prospect for the audience. Each piece has basically the same "binary" form, with two halves, each repeated; it’s the ceaseless creativity Scarlatti pours into this mould that counts. Colli ingeniously solved the problem of repetitiveness, building a sequence of sonatas involving powerful contrasts of tempi and dynamic, but above all of colour. Could any oil paint palette match him at that black and white keyboard?

Colli Scarlatti sonatasHe seems to find the very edge of what’s possible and acceptable at the piano, then plays poised on that edge without ever quite tumbling off: this playing is secure, but never safe, and that applies to the softest, quietest side of it as much as to the pyrotechnics. For the Scarlatti sonatas in D minor Kk32 ("Aria") and Kk208 in A major, the risk was to find a tone so whispered that the music could have failed to emerge altogether - have we ever heard quite such a quiet sound from a normal Steinway? - yet without sacrificing eloquence or the integrity of line. In the rapid numbers, like the concluding Kk39 presto, he unleashed cascades of repeated notes, magnificently articulated fingerwork, an intriguing yet generally convincing sense of rubato and almost operatically phrased melody. Perhaps most remarkable is the sense that however risky all this was, nothing was happening that was not actually inside the music already, waiting to be drawn out. 

Opening the second half with Mozart’s D minor Fantasia, Colli was able to explore that free, quasi-improvisatory atmosphere some more before launching with purple velvet tone into the Brahms Theme and Variations in D minor (transcribed by the composer from his String Sextet No.1), followed without a break by Busoni’s transcription of the Bach D minor Chaconne. 

Any violinist worth his/her salt can make the Chaconne into a fantastical personal statement, and Busoni’s multidimensional, no-holds-barred piano reimagining of it let Colli off his leash in a breathtaking slalom of enormous intensity, contrast and power. His sound has a deep, cushioned, luminous quality at all levels and such is his control of voicing that at times you might almost imagine the piano had been transformed into an organ, with different-timbred pipes for the various registers positioned all over the hall. An illusion, of course, but a glorious one.

Two encores - Colli’s own gentle version of Handel’s "Lascia ch'io pianga" and then Dame Myra Hess’s transcription of Bach’s "Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring" brought a remarkable evening to its close. It takes a technique and a half to make a piano sound like that - and, even more crucially, exceptional artistry to dream up the desire for those sounds in the first place.

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