Image description: A portrait of Frederico Colli against a grey background
Adaptation is a contentious topic for early music audiences. Some say that musicians should play a Baroque piece in a manner loyal to the time in which it was written, replicating the atmosphere of the eighteenth century as best they can; others believe that performers should embrace new technologies at their disposal, forgoing period instruments for more modern sounds. Federico Colli, an Italian pianist who ascended to prominence as the winner of the Salzburg Mozart Competition in 2011, makes a compelling case for this later category. On the afternoon of January 31 at LSO St Luke’s, his convincing performance of three works by J. S. Bach – all originally composed for the harpsichord and violin – proved that an adaptation can speak back to its original in powerful, productive ways.
The most arresting moments of Colli’s performance were those that took advantage of what the strings do not, or cannot, do.
The most arresting moments of Colli’s performance were those that took advantage of what the strings do not, or cannot, do. This was immediately evident with Colli’s interpretation of the first piece on the program, Bach’s Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971. The Andate movement was exquisitely hesitant, careful and restrained, and Colli smoothly carried the melody over from one note to the next. It would be difficult for a harpsichord to maintain the same rolling softness that Colli achieved with the piano. Bach originally wrote the Italian Concerto for a double keyboard, and so the ability to depict such a range of emotion on the piano is a difficult feat that Colli handled exceptionally. In the piece that followed, Bach’s Keyboard Partita No 4 in D major, the softer sections were again the most impactful, especially the Allemande and Sarabande. The more upbeat parts of the piece, including the Ouverture, Courante, and the Aria, appeared colourful and exuberant in comparison.
Bach originally wrote the Italian Concerto for a double keyboard, and so the ability to depict such a range of emotion on the piano is a difficult feat that Colli handled exceptionally.
The highlight of the afternoon was Colli’s final performance, Bach’s Chaconne in D minor from Violin Partita No 2 BWV 1004 (arr Busoni), a haunting, challenging, intense piece, famously beloved by composers, musicians and audiences throughout history. Before playing the Chaconne, Colli was asked about Ferruccio Busoni’s 1892 adaptation of the piece for the piano, which is the arrangement that Colli was to play for the St Luke’s audience. Colli responded by noting that the violin and piano are exceptional for their own reasons: “I think that Bach decided to work this music for violin in order to understand the strength that we need in order to reach something more beautiful – you know, we are limited, we are just human, but we can think about […] infinity.” He continued, saying that Bach composed the Chaconne “for a very limited instrument -– a fantastic instrument, but very limited, as a violin […]” and that the piano, on the other hand, is uniquely able to display a “fantastic range of sound and sonority.” Colli’s interpretation fulfilled this promise, invigorating Busoni’s piano adaptation with technical precision and a halting emotional eloquence.
Colli’s interpretation fulfilled this promise, invigorating Busoni’s piano adaptation with technical precision and a halting emotional eloquence.
A recording is another question posed by some music purists. What is changed, lost or gained when classical music performances are recorded and preserved for posterity? What happens to your experience with a piece when you are able to listen to it on repeat, hours and days after a concert has ended? LSO St Luke’s again took a modern approach to this issue: Colli’s performance was recorded and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on February 4, and it will be available online until early March. I understand that there is a theoretical case to be made for the merits of live performance — it is undoubtedly special to listen to a piece and know that no one, least of all you, will be able to replicate this precise moment ever again. In this particular instance, however, I am selfishly willing to relish in the merits of adaptation. I would happily listen to Colli’s performance over and over again.
Image Credit: LSO.co.uk