Jan Michiels revives Marcel Proust musically

Marcel Proust’s iconic chronicle A la recherche du temps perdu has been given a contemporary interpretation in a beautifully crafted recital by pianist Jan Michiels, complemented by live electronics (Juan Parra) and video art (Lise Bruyneel).

The concert, last Saturday in De Singel in Antwerp, was announced as a cathedral of piano music, partly to do justice to the poetic allure and grand vistas of Proust’s well-known work. The programme is built around several contemporaries of Proust (1871 – 1922). The main part is made up of works by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) and Gabriel Dupont, who died early and is therefore less well-known. These two composers are flanked by the older Robert Schumann from the beginning of the 19th century and, on the other hand, György Ligeti and Luigi Nono from the 20th century. Proust’s musical taste comes into its own in the choice of Isoldens Liebestod by Richard Wagner, in a transcription by Franz Liszt. Even Johann Sebastian Bach makes an appearance, in a version by Proust’s contemporary Forruccio Busoni. The programme is divided according to the titles of the seven parts of Proust’s cycle of novels, but the compilers have subtly added an eighth part (ascolta…Menschen wie Blumen), a reference to the work of György Kurtág.


Jan Michiels clearly shows that he feels at home with this playlist. The six Debussy pieces fit around his fingers like velvet gloves. With Wagner, he makes his piano sound like a traditional symphony orchestra. And with Ligeti, he is the spectacular sound acrobat.

In this kind of production, much attention is required to the mutual balance between the live instrument, electronics and video art. This is especially necessary to optimise the listening experience, respectively to prevent overkill. In Debussy’s subdued Des pas sur la neige, Jan Michiels’ acoustic piano is electronically enriched by the chirping of a few early birds, the tinkling of thin icicles and the rustling of aluminium foil. In other pieces, the piano is amplified, or Michiels plays quatre-mains with the electronics, or a piece for two or three pianos.  Electronics also add value to a sustained pedal tone and other effects that the acoustic instrument cannot produce. In the pieces where the electronics approach the intensity of a string orchestra, the recital runs the risk of turning into a concerto, which is less convincing.

The video images are projected onto a pleated curtain, creating mystery and mysticism. This works very well in Isoldens Liebestod where the crescendos of this ‘unendliche Melodie’ are perfectly matched with overwhelming waves on white cliffs. The scenes with hospital beds are so comical that the listener is in danger of losing interest in the music. But in the end, the abstraction level of the video art in this programme is high enough to remain aesthetically pleasing.

SEEN: Saturday 5 February 2022, De Singel, Antwerp


o Monday 21 February 2022, Klara-Live, 8 pm

o Saturday 2 April 2022, Concertgebouw Brugge, 8 pm Tickets: https://www.concertgebouw.be/nl/jan-michiels-juan-parra-lise-bruyneel

PHOTOS: Royal Conservatory of Brussels, Wynold Verweij 

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