Friday, 18 November 2016

A HUSUM DIARY 2016 / Days One and Two


I’m back in Husum, Germany for the second year in succession. After spending three nights at the 2015, I have been totally hooked, like some cocaine junkie. All thanks to the Japanese professor-critic-musicologist Satoru Takaku, who has himself become a regular fixture in these parts of Schleswig-Holstein. 

This year, I was determined to experience the full monty, which spans nine days in total with 12 recitals and other fringe events thrown in. It will be piano music flowing into both ears, and oozing out through the pores by the time I return to Singapore. As I had written in an article for the Singapore Medical Association News, “Muslims go to Mecca, Roman Catholics go to Lourdes, Pianophiles go to Husum”. Just wondering, am I the only Singaporean who has done this piano pilgrimage?  

Friday (19 August 2016)

The Brahms Museum in Heide,
just 20 minutes by train from Husum.

It takes 20 hours to get from Singapore to Husum. Twelve hours from Changi Airport to Helsinki, two more hours to Hamburg Airport, and thence two further hours by train from Hamburg's Altona to Husum itself. Not to mention the waiting times, and a brief stopover to the modest little Brahms Museum in Heide (the home of his ancestors), which by the way is a Pokemon Go stop of some relevance.

Th large festival banner at the gate
of Schloss vor Husum.

Husum in summer is blue skies and bright sunshine, a far cry from the “grey city by the sea” description by its most famous native, the German writer-poet Theodor Storm. Its market square is a hive of activity, with commerce and holiday-makers making the best of the warmth before autumn inevitably arrives. Pianoraks (a term coined by British writer-broadcaster-educator and all-round pianophile Jeremy Nicholas) gather at the 16th century Schloss vor Husum for their annual harvest of musical manna, and anticipation is thick as Kaiser Wilhelm II’s moustache for the annual Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum, now in its historic 30th year. Peter Froundjian is the festival's founder and artistic director, proud father of a baby that has not only grown up, but become piano esoteria central of the world.

Concert 1: Jonathan Plowright 
Symanowski Quartet (4.30 pm)

These two piano quintets in the key of C minor are true rarities perhaps until the Hyperion recording by these performers get released. If there is any justice in the world, both ought to be far better-known, especially the Ludomir Rozycki quintet with its massive 40-minute sprawl. It matches every bit the passion and intensity of favourites like the Brahms or Franck. There is Brahmsian richness of themes and harmonies in the 1st movement, but it is the slow movement's lament – with big tunes by cello and viola – that steals the show. The light-heartedness of the finale does not quite erase the pathos of the preceding movement.

The quintet by Ignaz Friedman is less intense, but no less listenable. The charm of old Vienna (think of Kreisler and Korngold) permeate the opening movement with the second theme reminiscent of old movie music, and do I hear echoes of Dvorak and Grieg in the slow movement, which is in the form of Theme and Variations. Similarly, Slavic folk music take over the dance-like finale, before a welcome return of the melody from the slow movement. Jonathan Plowright and his Polish partners give the best case possible of both quintets, which I hope to hear again soon. The best fix: buy the CD when it comes out next month! 


Concert 2: Duo Grau-Schumacher (8 pm)

The piano duo of Andreas Grau and Gotz Schumacher look like a pair of solicitors and advocates from Stuttgart or Dortmund, but they are are seriously good musicians. To perform an all-Busoni programme completely from memory is no joke, and the seriousness of their intent is stamped from the first note to the last. 

Rambling is what one might described the opening work, Improvisation on the Bach chorale Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seele (a mouthful in itself), which is a hotbed of counterpoint, mildly disturbing harmonies and the obligatory fugues. No argument with the committed and reading. What followed is hyphenated Mozart, including the Fantasy in F minor (K.608) for mechanical organ and the Duettino Concertante (a transcription of the finale from the Piano Concerto No.19 in F major). Those performances were on the rough and ready side, which could have done with a more rehearsals, and somewhat more charm. 

The main event was the Fantasia Contrappuntistica, which for 2 pianos is a quite different beast from the solo version. This was probably what J.S.Bach might have done for The Art of the Fugue had he lived into the 20th century. The subject was a Bach chorale but transformed into a quite unrecognisable behemoth that lasted the best part of 35 minutes. Bring on its parade of fugues, variations and chorales, and the duo delivered it with the authority which engenders a new admiration on the craft of Busoni. You either love him or hate him, and there can be no middle ground. 

That was the best performance of the evening, which drew two encores. The first was Busoni's transcription of the Magic Flute Overture, now with far more ebullience than previously and a Bach-Kurtag chorale transcription. Still that might be all the Busoni one will want to hear for the rest of the year.  

The first evening at Hartmann's Landkuche with
Ludwig Madlener, Satoru Takaku
& Monsieur Cortot (distant relation of Alfie).

The Wasserreihe in Husum, near the harbour,
is where Theodor Storm's house is located. 
Husum's quaint little inner harbour
with the Marienkirche in the background.

Saturday (20 August 2016)

Recital 3: Florian Noack (4.30 pm)

One new aspect on this 30th anniversary year is the introduction of the Young Explorers Series, which highlights younger pianists with the penchant for rarities. The young Belgian Florian Noack is already fairly well-known for his piano transcriptions of orchestral works. He did not play any of these, but introduced instead Theodor Kirchner's Nachtbilder (Night Pictures), comprising some 10 character pieces. The style is along the axis of Schumann and Brahms, but with a streak of fantasy and tempestuousness beyond their mere titles (which were just tempo indications). Noack brought a gamut of impulses and moods, but seemed to over-pedal to make his point.

One way of describing unknown piece of music is by referencing already well-known works or styles. So to say that William Sterndale Bennett's Fantasie (dedicated to Schumann) was Mendelssohnian is not an understatement. The German's manner was so well relived that one might call the four-movement work derivative. There was a Chopinesque opening in the 1st movement, but the rest was Mendelssohnian in its melody, decorative touches and general note-spinning. Pleasant but not memorable. Noack gave as good an account as he could, and it could be surmised that he will play Mendelssohn very well too. 

His final work was Stephen Heller's Tarantella, which is gentle and nimble, without the coruscations of Liszt; another pleasant listen. His two encores were of a totally different ilk, two of Sergei Lyapunov's Transcendental Etudes, the Berceuse and Dance of the Phantoms, which were very well played.

Recital 4: Simon Callaghan (8 pm)

One thing that can be said of the Briton was that he brought out the most gorgeous sound from the piano, one which the earlier pianists had missed out on. There was a warm burnished tone created for Arnold Bax's May Night in Ukraine, which carried off from the earlier Lyapunov with its Borodin-like melody but filled with dark hues, and just as evocative was Bax's Gopak, a folk dance with some delicious syncopations.

The piece de resistance was surely Roger Sacheverell Coke's 15 Variations and Finale. Its slow theme in a minor key was not unlike that in Mendelssohn's Variations Serieuses or Grieg's Ballade, but the variations were more aligned to Rachmaninov or Medtner with more dark asides balanced with occasional sentimentality. Definitely more demanding than Rachmaninov's Corelli Variations, this deserves to be heard more often, especially with Callaghan's dedicated and most musical advocacy.

The built-in encores were Stephen Hough's Rodgers and Hammerstein transcriptions: the Carousel Waltz, My Favourite Things, Hello Young Lovers and March of the Siamese Children, all of which I've heard from Hough himself in concert. Callaghan cannot pretend to be Hough but his performances were still persuasive. Just do not play The King & I pieces in Bangkok, lest the lese majeste laws get the poor pianist thrown into the slammer. There were three further encores, all Preludes by Coke. From Callaghan, who has recorded them, its the real thing.   

Simon Callaghan with his page-turner
Satoru Takaku after the recital.
Callaghan's piano duo partner Hiroaki Takenouchi
looks happy on the banner behind them.

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