Ian Hobson – “Preludes, Études, Variations,” Concert 1 of 6: Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Stephen Taylor

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Ian Hobson at Subculture. Photo Sarah Shatz.

Ian Hobson at Subculture. Photo Sarah Shatz.

Ian Hobson – “Preludes, Études, Variations”

Tuesday, October 13, 2015 Subculture NYC
Ian Hobson, piano

Frédéric Chopin (1810-49)
Trois Nouvelles Études
1. F minor: Andantino
2. A flat major: Allegretto 3. D flat major: Allegretto

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Preludes, Op. 23
1. F sharp minor: Largo
2. B flat major: Maestoso
3. D minor: Tempo di minuetto 4. D major: Andante cantabile 5. G minor: Alla marcia
6. E-flat major: Andante
7. C minor: Allegro
8. A flat major: Allegro vivace 9. E flat minor: Presto
10. G flat major: Largo

Stephen Taylor (b. 1965) Variations Ascending
world premiere

Frédéric Chopin
Études, Op. 25
1. A flat major: Allegro sostenuto
2. F minor: Presto
3. F major: Allegro
4. A minor: Agitato
5. E minor: Vivace
6. G sharp minor: Allegro
7. C sharp minor: Lento
8. D flat major: Vivace
9. G flat major: Allegro vivace
10. B minor: Allegro con fuoco
11. A minor: Lento – Allegro con brio

12. C minor: Allegro molto con fuoco

Ian Hobson‘s last appearance in New York was an ambitious Brahms cycle in September-October 2013. Extending over six weeks, it offered a comprehensive survey of Brahms’ solo music for piano and his chamber music for piano. I praised this enthusiastically at the time not only for the intelligence and sensitivity of the playing, but for the thoughtful programming, and the outstanding program book, with extensive essays by Paul Griffiths, O.B.E. Just last week, Ian Hobson began an equally ambitious series of six recitals, even more impressively organized, on a more abstract concept, bearing the title “Preludes, Études, Variations,” continuing monthly into April 2016, with this first concert, here reviewed, at Subculture, NYC, as well as the next on December 1. The rest will continue at Merkin Hall on the Upper West Side. This series is entirely solo, accompanied only by Mr. Griffiths’ incisive notes. In addition to 19th- and 20th-century classics of these three musical genres, there are world premieres of new works commissioned by Hobson for the series.

It was instructive to embark on Ian Hobson’s explorations a few days after Maurizio Pollini’s essentially conventional program of Schumann and Chopin at Carnegie Hall, since, as you might expect, Chopin was also prominent on  Mr. Hobson’s program. After the break, Pollini played a series of Chopin warhorses with which he has been associated for many years. His three encores (the “Revolutionary” Étude, G minor Ballade, Op. 23, D-Flat Major Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2) turned the afternoon into a favorites session. Only Pollini’s singular gifts and the fact that he was right on form made this an exhilarating occasion rather than a bore.

I daresay Ian Hobson could bring off such a program equally well if he were interested, but he is not a man to waste opportunities, and his series and each individual concert is sharply focused—musically as well as conceptually. Each work had a reason for its place in the program and each led the audience along on a journey, here dominated by the two great pianist-composers of the 19th and 20th centuries, Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Amidst their preludes and études, Stephen Taylor’s variations came as a refreshing interlude. Just to bring my own reflections on this opening concert into focus, I should define the musical genres   in question. I prefer to call them genres rather than forms, because preludes and études can assume various forms, although ABA song form predominates. The natures of the prelude and the étude lie in their purpose. One cannot characterize them better than Paul Griffiths in his introduction to the program book:

Starting with Chopin, ending with Rachmaninoff, and diving into Debussy now and then all along the way, Ian Hobson displays the exploits of these three composers – and others – in three forms that turn out to be linked.

The prelude is the least defined of these genres—though with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as its great ancestor, it faintly suggests progress through all the keys, a feat Chopin and Rachmaninoff achieved in their sets.

The étude, of course, is a study, devised to develop and to exhibit technical expertise – though all our composers made their études into poems as much as exercises, and so lessened the étude’s difference from the prelude; Rachmaninoff’s very title Études-Tableaux acknowledges this picturesque aspect to the étude.

The variation, by contrast with these two, is not an individual item; variations come in sets, and are linked. On the other hand, it is common practice these days for sets of preludes or études also to be played as complete entities, a choice that is often implicitly encouraged by the composer in making the last in the set a big finale.

Hobson opened the program with one of Chopin’s less familiar works, Trois nouvelles études, which he wrote in 1839 for La Méthode des Méthodes, a collection of advanced études by François-Joseph Fétis and Ignaz Moscheles, a figure highly valued by Mr. Hobson as a composer and as a master of piano technique. Mendelssohn, Liszt, Thalberg, and Moscheles himself were among the composers commissioned to write the twenty pieces in the collection. All three of Chopin’s contributions were devoted to playing triple figures over duple—a problem more musical than technical. Hence they are relatively sober in contrast to his Opus 10 and Opus 25 études. The musicality, clarity, and judicious balance of Hobson’s performance set the tone for the rest of the concert, which he played without intermission.

After this brief visit with a somewhat less familiar Chopin, Hobson plunged into Rachmaninoff’s Op. 23 Preludes. In the spirit mentioned by Paul Griffiths, Rachmaninoff here traversed as broad a range of keys as he could in ten pieces, from F Sharp Minor circling to its enharmonic equivalent major, G Flat, both marked Largo. Tempi stay mainly on the broader side in the first half and quicken, following the G Minor “Alla Marcia,” No. 5, in the middle, up to the E Flat Minor Presto which leads up to the final Largo in its relative minor. The key relationships, which sometimes emerge in consecutive pieces, sometimes more distantly, but consistently, as in No. 3 (D Minor), No. 5 (G Minor), No. 7 C Minor, reflect the unified conception of the whole, which came very much to the fore in Hobson’s interpretation. Yet Rachmaninoff himself rarely if ever played the set complete, and he never recorded all of them. He wrote the G Minor in 1901, continuing on with the other 9 over the next two years. In 1910, he decided to complete his traversal of all this keys with the thirteen preludes of his Opus, 32. He had already covered C Sharp Minor in 1892, in the prelude which was so popular with his audiences, who never ceased calling for it as an encore, that he became disgusted with it, nicknaming it “Frankenstein.”

Hobson’s command of the pedal is matchless. He is able to elicit just enough blending to float the passing harmonies in a suitably romantic atmosphere without obscuring any of the detail in the inner voices—a virtue as crucial to Chopin as to Rachmaninoff and his richer textures. In this way Hobson is able to contrast the color of notes in the middle range, to convey inner rhythmic patterns, and to reveal the full complexity of the composer’s writing. There were many felicitous details throughout, too many to recite in full, from the quirky angularity of the figures in the G Minor to the luxuriant, singing melodies of the more lyrical preludes.

Before turning back to Chopin, Hobson played the world premiere of Stephen Taylor‘s Variations Ascending, a handsome work, beautifully conceived for the keyboard, which managed to be directly pleasing and satisfying without limiting expressive dissonances. While not very extended in length, it was an ambitious work, covering the unfolding of life on our planet, from the explosion of multi-cellular organisms to the human, specifically “the human brain, with its potential for love or hate, reason or madness.” (from Taylor’s own program note) Yes, this theme and ten variations tells the story of DNA in a single gene, “Sonic Hedgehog.” an ancient gene determining the layout of creatures’ limbs, including the fingers—hence its suitability for a set of piano variations. The inspiration for the work is Nick Lane’s Life Ascending. Rather than putting one off, the scientific premise provided a rich framework for the composer’s musical imagination. The images the music conjured up were as grand as the grandest landscape of the Hudson River School. The music has stayed with me, and, who knows, I may pick up Lane’s book one day.

The concert closed with Chopin’s great Opus 25 Études, which he finished in 1836 and published the following year, with a dedication to Liszt’s mistress, Marie d’Agoult, revealing yet another mode of expression on the keyboard. Instead of the colors and moods of the preludes and the narrative of the variations, Hobson visited the realm of fingerwork itself. Again the progression of keys lay the structure of a unified work, as work for performance in concert, and a poetic one, as rich in atmosphere and suggestiveness as any character-piece—or prelude. The succession of keys varies in significance. No. in A Flat Major is followed by its relative minor. Then comes a parallel major. Then A Minor, with no specific relationship, but then up a fifth to E Minor. The more remote keys follow each other in the second half, with the last three pieces shedding their sharps and flats and the final étude, in C Minor, ending in an exalted C Major. The technical challenges of the Études, as well as their rich variety of colors and moods, generally inspire even the best pianists to treat them as vehicles for the display of their personal style. Ian Hobson’s performance was about the music. Hobson, with his complete mastery of the keyboard issues, concentrated on Chopin’s poetry and logic. His attention to Chopin’s inner voices was a joy to hear, especially with Pollini’s homogenizing pedaling still a vivid memory. I can’t see how any pianist equal to the task of playing Chopin at all can neglect this aspect of his writing, especially with Robert Schumann’s discussion of the Études in the basic literature, not to mention Charles Rosen’s wisdom on the composer.

Subculture’s salon-sized Steinway, a perfect match for the space, was especially well-prepared. Any lack of resonance in the lowest notes was almost unnoticeable, the middle registers nicely differentiated, and the top bell-like and clear.

As I mentioned above, there will be five more recitals: December 1 (at Subculture), January 19, 2016, February 22, March 23, and April 13, all at Merkin Hall. In addition to Chopin and Rachmaninoff’s efforts in those three genres, there will be Fauré, Debussy, Szymanowski, and Schumann (his Symphonic Études no less!) and premieres of Études by Robert Chumbley and Preludes by Yehudi Wyner. Anyone with more than a casual interest in the piano should not miss any of them.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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