Jan Michiels plays sparkling timbres in concerto Annelies Van Parys

By Wynold Verweij

Those who think that balancing exercises mainly belong in a gym are wrong since last Saturday. In Annelies Van Parys’ piano concerto, Jan Michiels (piano) and Martyn Brabbins (conductor) with the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra showed that a sophisticated tuning of timbre, nuance and tempo can lead to an intense listening experience.

The 400-year history of the concerto as a form of composition shows that the soloist and the orchestra sometimes find it difficult to get along. There are many cases where the orchestra cannot follow the soloist and vice versa, or where the soloist accompanies the orchestra instead of the other way round. But in the world creation of Van Parys’ concerto, soloist and orchestra proved to complement each other perfectly and even to be able to have fun together musically. This was largely because the piece was written especially for pianist Jan Michiels. Michiels is known as a musician who plays exceptionally melodic and sparkling, with all the tones sounding round and smooth and all the components of polyphonic passages coming into their own. His playing fits wonderfully with the timbres that characterise Van Parys’ compositions. This is exceptional, because a piano cannot handle tonal distances as subtly as the clouds of sound in Van Parys’ orchestrations. The composition must therefore be of a high technical level if everything is to fit together. Add to this conductor Martyn Brabbins, who has earned his stripes in the romantic repertoire of the late 19th/early 20th century, and there was enough to warm this concerto up.

Lava flow

Jan Michiels told us after the last rehearsal: “I think it is an organically built piece and that is a direct result of the construction of the timbre. This is best expressed in the second part, which reminds me of a lava flow from an Icelandic volcano that is slowly coagulating. At first I was very curious how the piano part would sound with the orchestra, whether we would hear each other sufficiently. But somehow it all came together beautifully. You can see that Annelies Van Parys is a great composer because when she was writing she already knew exactly how it would sound. But fortunately, she also leaves the soloist free. She is not like Pierre Boulez who prescribed exactly how a note should sound. I was free in nuance and dynamics, even in tempo”.


The piece begins with an excited toccata of a rumbled bass that jumps from the high to low registers. A marconist could have learned something from Michiels. The motives are occasionally taken over by the brass, but the soloist takes over again at the end of the first movement when he seems to be leading a buffalo stampede with a dark series of low rolls. The second, lyrical movement, is the most characteristic of this concerto. Here, the pianist chimes pianissimo in the highest register, while the orchestra weaves together clusters of subtly fluctuating harmonies. The listener experiences a hint of timelessness that passes into the present with a vague cadence. In that third movement, the piano comes to the fore with teasing motifs that become increasingly attacking and follow each other cat-like. A suspicion of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue rears its head but disappears immediately. Thus, the listening experience is complete.  

One color

Jan Michiels: “The pianist of each piece must possess empathy, fantasy and a sense of color, but in this concerto, the technique of repeating notes is added to that. This also places high demands on the instrument’s technical condition. The combination of the changing harmonies, the many repeating notes (Flatterzunge) of both the piano and the orchestra works wonderfully well together, it has become one color. The piece is technically challenging, but not a goal in itself. It is not easy for the orchestra either. But it is so well written that I did not notice any obstinacy in the orchestra during the rehearsals. On the contrary, it was a challenge. “

WHAT:           Piano concerto Annelies Van Parys (world creation)

WHO:            Jan Michiels (piano), Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

SEEN:      Queen Elizabeth Hall, Antwerp, 28 May 2022

PHOTOS: Antwerp Symphony Orchestra & Thomas Verfaille

LISTEN TO:  Klara Live, Thursday 9 June 20h00 – 22h00

Leave a Reply