Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The Chetham's Recitals 2007: Part 4

21 August, 8.30 pm

In 1993, Leon McCawley became the first British pianist to get a sniff at the Leeds International Piano Competition since Ian Hobson’s triumph in 1981 - placing second after Ricardo Castro. There have been no Brits coming close ever since. In recent years, McCawley has performed with the Malaysian Philharmonic (those lucky people), but not with the Singapore Symphony. That should soon change.

His recital began with a very clean and crystal clear reading of Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor (K.475), which sounded so austere as to be almost modern. There is a profusion of ideas introduced but he seemed to lose me in its narrative (what was Mozart trying to convey?), so this already-elusive work continues to elude me. No such problems in Beethoven’s Sonata quasi una Fantasia in E flat major (Op.27 No.1), which shone brightly like the nascent morning sun. The hymn tune of the slow movement was beautifully carved out and on its return amid the final movement’s busy country-dance, it appeared with the gratefulness of a long lost friend.

McCawley’s piece de resistance was Schumann’s Fantasy in C major (Op.17). His performance had everything – passion, nostalgia (especially in the Beethoven quotation), lots of technique to burn, and a gorgeous luminous sound, evident in the rapturous first movement. The march of the League of David went forth unimpeded and those horrendous octave leaps at the end posed little trouble. His sense of rubato was excellent in the slow and ruminating finale, bringing a slow but sure boil to the glorious climax – not once but twice. A more spiritual close to the great work could not have been desired.

His two encores were both by Schumann, a perfectly conceived Widmung (in Liszt’s transcription) and the vertigo-inducing Traumes Wirren (from Fantasiestücke, Op.12). Ronald Stevenson said he had not witnessed such pianism for fifty years, since the days of Mark Hambourg. Who am I to question that assessment?

22 August, 8.30 pm

Graham Scott will assume the post of Head of Keyboard at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music in a fortnight, succeeding the late (and desperately unfortunate) Mark Ray. His unusual but strangely well-balanced recital marked a welcome return (he was an old boy of Chet’s) from his four years at the Chicago College of Performing Arts.

Mozart’s Sonata in F major (K.533 / 494) opens with one of the most simple and beguiling lines of melody possible, and his touch was just perfect. The rest of the first movement tends to over-elaborate on the spare thematic material but Scott prevented it from sounding like too much of an exercise. The contemplative slow movement incorporates a fragment from the preceding movement, which gave the work a sense of unity. The chirpy Rondo finale, played sotto voce from beginning to end, came across with the delicacy of a music box fantasy, rounding up an enjoyable reading.

Then the gloves came off for Earl Wild’s Grand Fantasy on Porgy and Bess, surely a work that deserves a place in the pantheon of great opera transcriptions for the piano, together with the likes of Liszt’s Reminiscences de Don Juan, Norma Fantasy and Grainger’s Ramble on Der Rosenkavalier. It is in effect a half hour’s medley of hit tunes opening with Jasbo Brown Blues, serving as a kind of Promenade (à la Mussorgsky) between each song.

This fantasy also showcased Wild’s encyclopaedic knowledge of piano literature, with hints and snatches of tricks and special effects from countless other composer-pianists. For example, Summertime gave the illusion of three hands performing (Thalberg’s favourite device), with the left singing the melody, the right gilding the lily and the thumbs adding further textures. Who could resist a chuckle with the quote from Tristan that led from There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ for New York to Lawd I’m On My Way? I almost fell off the chair with a laughing fit. Or what about the Ivesian tone clusters with both forearms in I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’?

Scott’s totally enthralling excursion fully realised all of Wild’s wiles, and his encore of Gershwin’s bluesy Second Prélude also confirmed that impression. Bravo!

No comments: