Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Virtuoso Piano Transcriptions: A Piano Recital by Kenneth Hamilton / Review

Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (12 April 2009)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 April 2009, with the byline A Performer Who Brings On Goosebumps (!)

In a third recital in as many years, Scottish pianist Kenneth Hamilton, music lecturer at Birmingham University, regaled a committed band of pianophiles and students with yet another show of oratorical wit and imperious pianism. His is a glorious reliving of a swashbuckling brand of programming and performance values, unafraid of favouring transcribed music over originals, and bringing the cult of the performer to the forefront.

In this recital unabashedly filled with transcriptions – once considered no-no’s to purists and puritans – brought forth the usual suspects, including the highs and lows of Franz Liszt (left). His mighty Reminiscences de Norma after Bellini’s bel canto opera was delivered with a fearless bravura that made light of its extremely taxing demands. Only a minor muddle in the middle revealed Hamilton to be human after all.

Contrast this with the Capriccio alla Turca, possibly Liszt’s worst transcription of Beethoven’s worst music, a vulgar march from The Ruins Of Athens overloaded with meretricious effects but saved by the startlingly modern-sounding Dervishes’ Dance. With the Romantic period, there is often no separating the ridiculous from the sublime.

No such issues with Ferruccio Busoni’s Carmen Fantasy, where Hamilton brought out the opera’s darker and ironic aspects through its veneer of superficial familiarity. The selection of Percy Grainger (left) pieces was excellent, beginning with the Ramble (Grainger’s own description) on the final love duet from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. Although simulating ultimate cocktail music, the technique required to pull it off (including all three pedals of the grand piano) even transcends the virtuoso realm. The Tune from County Derry (or Danny Boy) and its close cousin Colonial Song brought on the goose bumps.

Hamilton’s own teacher Ronald Stevenson, a Busoni acolyte, was represented by his Three Elizabethan Pieces, which turned John Bull’s courtly dances (Pavan, Galliard and The King's Hunt) for the virginal (an early harpsichord-like instrument) into cathedrals of sound. Hamilton truly reveled in these gems, as with John Ireland’s Decorations, three little-known impressionist visions that could out-Debussy Debussy.

Finally Leopold Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Johann Strauss’ Kunstlerleben – a Frankenstein monster of the original waltz – brought the house down amidst a riotous marrying of melodies with decadent harmonies. Hamilton’s encores? More Grainger (Maguire's Kick) and his own transcription of the famous aria from Saint-Saens’ Samson And Delilah, suggesting that his great pianist-composer forebears had not laboured in vain.
This recital was presented by the University of Birmingham.

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