Concert Review: Niklas Sivelöv, September 18, 2022

By Paul Baker

For his September 18 concert, Swedish virtuoso Niklas Sivelöv strode out in long tails and gray ascot looking not a little like a clean-shaven Beethoven. As he sat at the vintage Mason & Hamlin 1906 model AA piano I appreciated that nod to sartorial tradition.

His concert of Bach, Beethoven, Schonberg, Scriabin, and his own compositions wove a musical thread that linked 400 years of musical styles. Each piece he played with physical passion, highlighting forceful movements by tapping his toes and heels, wincing, lunging, and raising his arms aloft.

The man is not lost in the past. He reads his music on an iPad controlled by a floor pedal, and incorporates Scriabin and Schonberg into his own compositions.

The concert program included Beethoven's 6 Bagatelles, Op. 126, a demanding piece despite its name, with its dense harmonies and knotty rhythms, cross-hand playing, and several sustained trills that sprang airborne into flight.

Compared to that harmonic and rhythmic density, J. S. Bach's Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826 sounded translucent and sparse. But not cold, as Sivelov phrased some passages with Romantic hesitations. The left hand sometimes played counterpoint to the right, as in the two-part Inventions, then joined the right in close parallel passages.

The Partita set the mood for Arnold Schoenberg's challenging dodecaphonic Suite for Piano, Op. 25, with its six movements reflecting a Baroque suite. Its dissonant clusters and staccato rhythms suggested at times a scatter of birds, racing chipmunks, sometimes human speech. The resulting tensions were resolved by way of lyrical passages, dynamic contrasts, and motivic development.

Sivelöv's selection of Scriabin included preludes, etudes, and a mazurka. Following the Schoenberg, Scriabin sounded Romantically rich. The gentle swirls and clouds hinted at Debussy and Ravel; some phrasing and harmonies nodded to Chopin. Scriabin's synthesis of Russian music with French Impressionism fed into his larger project of combining all art forms into an ultimate synthesis that would lead the listener/observer into states of mystic rapture.

Sivelöv concluded with a selection from his composition, 24 Preludes (2010-2014). One noted the influence of jazz pianists like Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett, along with tokens from Schoenberg (clusters and sprinkles) and Beethoven (extended trills, dramatic pauses) and (!) Jerry Lee Lewis (swipes across the entire keyboard and heavy forearm clusters).

A lengthy standing ovation inspired an encore, a wistful reading of a Swedish folk song, whose pastel lyricism recalled Debussy by way of pianist Bill Evans.

Kudos to Sivelöv for an untiring virtuosic performance, and for programming such challenging works by Schoenberg, which the audience clearly enjoyed.

How privileged we are to witness such talent.


Paul Baker is the host of "Listen Adventurously," a program of contemporary and 20th-Century classical music, streaming Mondays 5am to 8am at www.wortfm.org and over the air at 89.9 FM, Madison.