Neglected works

On Monday 15/9 to hear Stephen Hough in recital at a packed Angel Place.

The program was described by Hough when introducing an encore as a “Chopin Debussy sandwich” (or was it a Debussy Chopin sandwich?). Sticking with that metaphor, the Chopin was the filling, with the Ballades 2 and 1 coming before interval (in that order, giving a big first-act closer) and 3 and 4 after. This was preceded in the first half by Debussy’s La plus que lente and Estampes, and followed in the second by the Children’s Corner Suite and L’Isle joyeuse.

Obviously, with the possible exception of the first Debussy, none of these could be described as neglected works and indeed the program could hardly have been more popular.

I enjoyed it. Stephen Hough is a pianist I have long admired. There is a kind of spikiness (not in the Anglo-Catholic sense) in his playing – an energised articulation especially in the face of more detailed figuration and a tendency to quirkiness. That’s him: it would be possible to imagine more mellifluous Chopin and Debussy but that would not be the point.

The interposition of the interval also brought out a stylistic jump between the two pairs of Ballades.

Mercifully, enthusiastic applause which interrupted the movements of Estampes was suppressed after a final brief outburst after the first movement of Children’s Corner. Maybe the spiky style suited this piece the most.

On Friday 19/9 to the SOH, again to hear Mr Hough, this time playing the Dvořák Piano Concerto with the SSO conducted by Hans Graf. If the SSO was counting on familiarity with the artist to make up for the unfamiliarity of the concerto, that doesn’t seem to have worked – though not embarrassingly empty it was a far from full hall.

The second half was Bruckner 6. Oddly, according to the program, Hans Graf also conducted this work the last time the SSO performed it, in 1996.

I enjoyed both works though I can’t say I was really familiar with either. There was a funny bit about three-quarters into the first movement of the Dvořák when the piano part started digging into emphatic looping triplet figures against an orchestral theme where I thought, “Yes! Brahms!.” (it’s at about 9.44 here) I also liked the slow movement which made me think at first of his Op 68 No 2 but on listening again I think that is just because I knew it. As for the Bruckner, I didn’t quite grasp the ending.

I was bemused by Maxim Boon’s review in Limelight Magazine’s online version where he devoted most of the first half of his unconstrained-by-print-already-lengthy review to complaining that the talents of Hough and the SSO were squandered on such an obscure (and in his view deficient) work.

I thought it was better than that, but that did set me to thinking how narrow the canon is of nineteenth century romantic piano concerti which we hear performed, at least in Sydney. After Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, Schumann, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Grieg (and from these I think you can count only about 15 mainstream concerti) the next rung of works pretty much all only appear as obscurities, even if by well-known composers such as Mendelssohn, Strauss, Franck, Scriabin. Doubtless there are some others which I have left out – but we don’t even get to hear the famous Litolff Scherzo live unless there is an ABC Classic FM countdown.

Hough had taken up his phone in the twittersphere against a Scottish vote for independence. He had tweeted beforehand that he was planning a Scottish encore. The outcome of the poll was not then yet known, though by the time he played it, the news was in.

Without having a particular view about what was best for Scotland, I have found the whole politicking over this most amazingly bullying: why should not Scotland have succeeded as a state to the former United Kingdom and why was it assumed that in any divorce, the rump of the kingdom would get to keep everything? Hough’s Scottish piece was by Granville Bantock – about as Scottish as Debussy was Spanish, I would have thought.

On Saturday 20/9 to hear the Australia Ensemble. The main work in the first half was a clarinet quintet from Arthur Benjamin’s student days, exhumed from some library by Ian Munro. I doubt I will hear it again.

In the second half the Ensemble departed from its customary programming of a major chamber work by finishing up with an arrangement by Mendelssohn for piano duet violin and cello of his (also pretty juvenile) first symphony, which interpolated as a scherzo the famous scherzo from his Octet. The Mendelssohn received a (to me) surprisingly warm reception from the audience: I would have preferred something more redblooded and authentically thought-out for its forces.

I regret to say that piano duets are more fun to be in than to witness – there is something a bit inherently heartless about them, perhaps because of the way that each player is forced onto his or her best manners. It’s not as if you ever see two people playing the same violin or double bass. The violin and cello didn’t really have very much to add.

For me the highlight of the night was Roger Smalley’s trio for clarinet, viola and piano.

Dean Newcombe stepped in on clarinet for a sadly still indisposed Catherine McCorkill. It is difficult not to fear the worst which will be sad news indeed.

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