Wednesday, 4 April 2012

200 YEARS OF THE PIANO / Kenneth Hamilton Piano Recitals / Review

Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday & Monday (31 March & 2 April 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 April 2012 with the title "Piano adventures".

The annual piano recitals in Singapore by Scottish virtuoso Kenneth Hamilton, professor at the University of Birmingham, have taken on an epic quality of late. This year’s offering, spanning over two centuries of piano literature, was shoe-horned into two evenings with a day of rest in between.

Other than a popular Chopin Ballade, there was little concession for familiar music by the “usual suspects”. His overview of this endlessly fascinating subject was instead a survey of evolving piano styles over the epochs. Even the Mozart presented were rarities, beginning with Suite in the Style of Handel, published posthumously with a French overture, fugue and Allemande which acknowledged the past, and a tagged-on Gigue whose unlikely dissonances looked toward the future.

Beethoven’s late A Major Sonata (Op.101) was also atypical in that it seemed to predict the lyricism of Mendelssohn and passion of Schumann. To this rollicking score, Hamilton wrought fistfuls of colours and an over-arching sense of cohesion. The highlight of the first evening was Charles-Valentin Alkan’s transcription of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 (left), where both piano and orchestra were fused into an outsized conflation.

This was no longer good old Amadeus but some gothic Frankenstein’s monster with gargantuan cadenzas (the first movement uproariously incorporated Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony) that best exemplified the excesses of the Romantic age. Hamilton’s heroic, no-holds barred account was not one for purists or faint-hearted but manna for the adventurous. One is unlikely to encounter it again for a long time.

The second evening showcased the art of variations and more transcriptions. Brahms used a simple air by the composer of Messiah as the subject for his Handel Variations (Op.24), a lengthy discourse which Hamilton handled with almost disarming facility. Its massive concluding fugue began alarmingly on a furious pace, which he built on with fearless panache and implausible reserves of adrenaline.

In between big works in both recitals were a series of well-chosen transcriptions, familiar and obscure. Brahms and Liszt, Busoni and Rachmaninov, all appeared but it was two gems by the Scotsman Ronald Stevenson, of songs by Ivor Novello and Richard Tauber, which caught the ear. The most modern work was Stevenson’s Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid (1967, left), with its evocation of highland sagas, chants and bagpipes effects.

The final tour de force came in Liszt’s solo version of Totentanz (Dance of Death), essentially variations on the medieval chant Dies Irae. How Hamilton mustered its multitudes of flying notes, crunching chords, stampeding octaves and sweeping glissandi remains in the realm of physicists. The two encores, by Liszt and his son-in-law Hans von Bülow, brought the audience from Hades back to solid earth. From the diabolical to the divine, Hamilton’s piano history lesson and “one man band” has to be experienced to be believed.

What do you call a collection of piano virtuosos? Three of four pianists responsible for the most Singapore premieres of piano works. Kenneth Hamilton (Liszt, Alkan, Ireland, Stevenson) with Albert Tiu (Rachmaninov, Chopin-Godowsky, Barber) and Nicholas Loh (Kapustin, Rzewski). The 4th pianist is Shane Thio (Messiaen, Takemitsu, Ligeti, Schulhoff), who was not at the recital. (Photo courtesy of Prof Lim Mong King)

Note: Kenneth Hamilton's encores were Brahms Intermezzo in A major (Op.118 No.2) on Saturday evening, and Liszt Legend No.2: St Francis de Paul Walking on the Waves and Bülow-Liszt Dante Sonnet on Monday evening.

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