Ian Hobson, piano: Preludes – Etudes – Variations at Merkin Concert Hall, February 22, 2016: Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff

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Pianist Ian Hobson

Pianist Ian Hobson

Ian Hobson, piano
February 22, 2016 Merkin Concert Hall

Frédéric Chopin (1810-49)
Variations on “La ci darem la mano,” Op. 2

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Preludes, book 2
1. Brouillards
2. Feuilles mortes
3. La Puerta del Vino
4. Les Fées sont d’exquises danseuses
5. Bruyères
6. Général Lavine – eccentric
7. La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune
8. Ondine
9. Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq., P.P.M.P.C.
10. Canope
11. Les Tierces alternées
12. Feux d’artifice

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39

1. C minor: Allegro agitato
2. A minor: Lento assai
3. F sharp minor: Allegro molto
4. B minor: Allegro assai
5. E flat minor: Appassionato
6. A minor: Allegro
7. C minor: Lento lugubre
8. D minor: Allegro moderato
9. D major: Allegro moderato – Tempo di marcia

I very much regret that I’ve not been able to attend any of Ian Hobson’s splendid recitals in his series. Preludes – Etudes – Variations, since the first one in October. Listening to this concert in a vacuum, so to speak, brought home to me with all the more clarity, how each recital, from programming to execution, is focused on a specific aspect of the function of the three genres in the concert hall—an especially significant consideration in the cases of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, who wrote music for themselves to perform as piano virtuosi. Debussy, who did not, drew on the virtuoso tradition in his Preludes, for others to play in public. Mr. Hobson’s program, consisting of a very early work by Chopin, which he wrote as a conservatory student at age 17 and performed soon after his graduation two years later, the fifty-year-old Debussy’s peak as a writer for the piano, and Rachmaninoff’s final work written in Russia: in 1917, when he was forty-four, and his world was crumbling around him, as the Revolution continued its course and he realized that he would have to leave his native country, where he had friends, money, and property, and face an uncertain future as an exile, most likely supporting his family with concert tours in the United States, which he hated. All these works have their harmonic, coloristic, and emotional extremities, at points going as far as to reflect the Paganinian tradition of the demented, or diabolical virtuoso. Hobson responded to this with full sympathy in all, as well as prodigious energy.

The persuasiveness of Hobson’s spirit and pianism were more than evident in his playing of Chopin’s Variations on “La ci darem la mano,” Op. 2. As I listened to him perform the work, I openly accepted Chopin’s personality and style in it, but, on further reflection, they are only intermittently apparent. Much of the writing is derived from the fashionable bravura composers of the time like Hummel or Field, but, although pianistic display is its ultimate goal, it is by no means empty or inferior. Chopin wrote it at the Warsaw Conservatory in 1827 as an exercise in a piano work with orchestral accompaniment, successfully enough to earn him, along with his other efforts, a commendation as a musical genius at graduation. In August 1829, he made a brief visit to Vienna, and, almost by luck, he was invited to play two concerts at the Kärntertortheater. The Variations earned him loud applause from the audience, between each variation, as was the custom at the time. It was soon published in Vienna, and a copy of the score landed in the hands of Chopin’s coeval, Robert Schumann, who was deeply impressed by it, enough to write his first attempt at music criticism, published in the prestigious Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in December 1831. (This was a success for Schumann as well, launching his career as a critic.) More importantly for Chopin, however, Friedrich Wieck picked up on his pupil’s Schwärmerei and outdid it in enthusiasm, if not in aptness. If Chopin never thanked Schumann for the review, he actively suppressed a French publication of Wieck’s review, which he considered stupid and potentially harmful to his career. (By 1832 he was beginning to establish himself in Paris.) However, Wieck in his enthusiasm gave it to his twelve-year-old daughter Clara to learn. She found it very difficult, but mastered it in a week, and proceeded to make it one of her warhorses. She continued to champion Chopin’s music to the end of her life. I daresay Clara’s playing did Chopin as much good as Robert’s review. I’ve taken the space to tell this story, because it is one of the great encounters in history of Romanticism—a moment of one very young Romantic recognizing an equally young fellow traveller—all the more impressive because the principals had little idea of the consequences at the time. It also shows how very important this little-known piece was in the process.

Later on Chopin felt free to play the Variations as a solo work. There wasn’t much to do other than omitting the orchestral passages, so simple was their conjunction. This was obviously how Ian Hobson addressed the work, launching the introduction with some mystery, as it sought out Mozart’s famous tune, but with a steady pace, a defining feature of the entire performance. Not much rubato is called for here. He stated the theme in Chopin’s jaunty guise with angular, clearly defined rhythms, and his usual differentiation of registers. His textural clarity came through quite well, in spite of the uneven acoustics of Merkin Hall and its decent, but not outstanding Steinway. Both gave the piano a bright, almost excessively present sound, as if the instrument were in one’s lap. The lowest octaves were also emphasized, almost booming, a feature Hobson used to his advantage later on in the Debussy and Rachmaninoff. The first three concerts of the series took place at SubCulture, which rightly uses a less than full-sized Steinway, but a very nice one, and balance is much more even from top to bottom. Since clarity and balance were not going to come through as well at Merkin, Hobson savvily went for energy and dramatic masses of sound. Hence his vivid conjuring of the devilish strands of Chopin’s variations, drawn from Don Giovanni’s dark side in the original, as well as his inevitable date in hell.

Debussy’s two books of Preludes are permeated with ambiguity, not only in the music and the way it is presented, that is, with suggestive and allusive titles printed after each prelude in the score, but in their very nature. They are as much collections of poetry as they are piano pieces, and beyond this, intensely visual, so that one can regard them as sound-painting as well. Paul Griffiths in his beautiful and insightful note, observed that “They are pictures in sound before they are representational images, though of course the labels count too.” But what they are literally, they are most solidly, piano preludes, a contribution to a tradition, modelled on one of the great examples, Chopin’s Opus 28, which Mr. Hobson played on January 19.

Within the context of this tradition, the Preludes are also ambiguous. Debussy made their integration into it perfectly clear through his virtuoso writing, but he chose to adopt a poetic course that was pointedly different from Chopin’s, one that was entirely characteristic, really of a piece, with his time and place, the Paris of 1911-13, when a generation formed by Mallarmé and the other Symbolists, haunted the cafés and salons. Chopin’s Romantic fugues (not the musical kind) were passé. The was now room for irony and wit, the fantastic, exotic, symbolic, and the spiritual—the spirit of Hoffmann reborn in the era of potted palms. Over the course of the twelve Preludes, which are as much the descendants of Schumann’s character pieces as Chopin’s essays in the same form, we hear echoes of both Opus 28 and Pierrot Lunaire. 1

It is possible for a pianist to perform Debussy’s Preludes successfully with an eye to the past—to Romanticism—and to the future. Of these, Hobson chose the latter, emphasizing strange colors, anomalous (yes, ambiguous) cadences, and surreal fantasy. Through all this, he never lost sight of Chopin, making the most of Debussy’s virtuosic figurations—and with clarity, rather than an impressionistic blur. He also conjured up with equal enthusiasm and imagination Debussy’s detailed, lush, and vivid scene painting in “La Puerta del Vino” and “La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune.” The quirky humor of “Général Lavine – eccentric” and “Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq., P.P.M.P.C.” were about as funny as I have experienced them, with interludes of almost terrifying grotesquerie, approaching mad hallucinations, but derived from a banal American circus act popular in Paris at the time and a revered English novel, long regarded as harmless.

Although the Merkin acoustics were not conducive to the finest subtlety, it didn’t stop Hobson from producing—within the framework of his bold approach—a considerable range of dynamics and tone colors, which served as a more than acceptable, in fact a continually delightful and enveloping equivalent of subtle artistry.

In Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux, Op. 39, which concluded the program, I constantly heard reflections of Impressionism—great, atmospheric flood tides of sound, which kept Mr. Hobson’s right foot rather busier than in the Debussy. The connection was vividly apparent, although the pianist produced the sonorities in a different manner. Following Griffiths’ observation in his note, it was clear that this Impressionism came to Rachmaninoff in a spiritualized form, mediated by the music and philosophy of Alexander Scriabin. Griffiths characterizes the connection with Scriabin as a dialogue which included Prokofiev as well, noting that Rachmaninoff gave it up after Op. 39. (In fact, by the time he resumed composing almost a decade later, he was in a different place altogether.) The chaos of the final years of the Great War and the Revolution put a swift end the the Silver Age mysticism so influentially propagated by Scriabin, who was already two years in the grave. Prokofiev only expressed this movement in a few pieces, before he, too, went into exile, where the artistic conjuring of other, interior worlds was no longer relevant. In any case, Russian Symbolism provided a powerful medium for the pitch-black moods of these highly emotional pieces. All, except the last, are in a minor key, and that hardly brought uplift or even full relief. Rachmaninoff even cast one of them in the dusky key of E Flat Minor. Again, Hobson exploited the resonant bass of Merkin piano and hall to create awe-inspiring sonorities, which depicted a landscape of total cultural devastation. Moments where his despair sank into mental disequilibrium, if not insanity, were not infrequent.

Bravura effects often seem more impressive when the performer indulges in them for no purpose, for mere display, but Ian Hobson’s integrity as a musician won’t allow him to perpetrate that. He never puts himself before the music, and even when he displays the impressive virtuosity of which he is capable, he uses it to display a quality of the music, its composer, and its place in its tradition. His New York recitals are always enlightening and refreshing.

The next concert in the series will be on March 23, which, unlike this one, will include a premiere commissioned for the series, this time by the great Yehudi Wyner. Don’t miss it!

  1. In spirit, at least, although he was sceptical, even negative, in his reception. Debussy was reported to have known Some works by Schoenberg and possibly Pierrot, although perhaps not in time to leave a literal mark on Book II; see Robert Henderson, “Portrait of Debussy, Part 3: Debussy and Schoenberg,” The Musical Times, Vol. 108, No. 1489 (Mar., 1967), pp. 222-226.
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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