It might be useful to think of this recital as the island of Boulez surrounded by the sea of romanticism. In my imagination, the steely, tautly structured music of the great French modernist anchors and sets the tone for the way Beville approaches the balance of his program. The result is both fascinating and frustrating, but never boring. Stephen Beville is a young British pianist and this is his debut recording.
The Boulez is from early in his career, 1948, in fact his first published work. It displays both the mathematical rigor of his writing, but as well, a sense of expressivity that too few associate with this vital musical spirit. Beville plays this music brilliantly. The Chopin Scherzo in E, which is the least stormy of the four scherzos, is dispatched with a clean, deliberate approach that is tender, but rhythmically taut. Beville is never tempted to moon over any of the coloristic or even sentimental elements of the music, which will make his interpretation sound somewhat cold and modern to some, compared to, say, Arrau, Ax, or Rubinstein. As much as I revere the playing of those three, I did find Beville’s way with the score, in a word, refreshing.
The Beethoven is more problematic. Beville seems over-awed by the op. 111, with careful and respectful playing that is at odds with the intensely personal nature of the music. It is almost a cliché to say so, but Artur Schnabel’s way with this music still sets the standard, with its profound sense of mystery and wonderment, and the roar of the wounded lion. Beville obviously loves this music, and it would be well worth hearing how his vision of it evolves. He certainly plays the op. 81a with great charm.
The Schumann Fantasie , yet another epochal work from the solo piano repertoire, also gets a mixed grade. He seems determined to make the blistering opening movement more smart than passionate. Jonathan Biss, who I interviewed for Fanfare several years ago, told me that he dies a little bit every time he plays it (and was then promptly embarrassed for making such a corny comment—although I am sure that he meant it). There is no blood on the floor in Beville’s reading. But then, he delivers a bold and electrifying march through the second movement, and an absolutely gorgeous and dramatic performance of the great slow finale. This is the Stephen Beville that went missing in the sublime theme and variation movement of the Beethoven op. 111. Beville wrote his own thoughtful and informative notes. The partially live (Beethoven op. 111 and Schumann) recording is a bit dry, but very clear. Certainly, his is a career to keep an ear open for.