Tuesday, 10 October 2017



This is the third year in succession that I will be attending that rarest of piano festivals, Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum. Held in the northern German seaside town of Husum, this festival delights in presenting piano music that is not often heard, the unknown, underrated and undiscovered gems of the piano repertory. All too often, the likes of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Rachmaninov dominates the programmes of piano recitals (and piano competitions), and the risk of over-familiarity and contempt looms large for pianists and listeners alike.

Husum is that breath of fresh air and much-needed shot in the arm, a chance to listen to music afresh, without pre-conceived ideas and prejudices. Some works may prove to be too arcane but much awaits discovery and the experience of new ears.  This 31st edition of a well-loved and all too unusual institution provided me with year another 9 days of musical bliss, a welcome relief from the humdrum of daily toil.   

DAY 1: Saturday (19 August 2017)

It did not start well at all. First, my flight to Helsinki was cancelled. I only learnt that fact a few hours before leaving for the airport. Thankfully, there weren't so many people flying British Airways, so I arrived in Hamburg via Heathrow. Next, having not read the weather reports, my suitcase was packed with beachwear all set for last year's sunny Husum summer. The reality was cold and drizzly. I will freeze but will survive.

A canopy of green leading to the Schloss.

Nothing beats the frisson of anticipation when one walks through Husum's Schlossgang and be greeted by the canopy of trees leading to the Schloss and the chatter of birdsong. It is a good sign, and the familiar faces that make it to the Mecca of pianophiles – Satoru, Ludwig, Jesper, the Peters (Froundjian and Grove), Elisabeth, Kathy, Bertrand, Fritz und Norbert - all add to this unremitting sense of well-being. We're all on first-name basis now.

Recital 1 (4.30 pm)

No matter what one thinks, Paul Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis will always be a rarity. This was his version of The Well-Tempered Clavier and Die Kunst der Fuge wrapped in one, comprising a Prologue and a series of Interludes and Fugues, all in his typically quirky and astringent style. There is as much conformity to structure and form as there is much wit, the improvisatory interludes followed by the wryly wrung fugues, brought out trenchantly by the young Lithuanian-Russian's hands.

Some of the themes sound atonal (borne from tone rows), but when heard repeated through a series of voices, these become listenable, even likeable. The piano sounds more reverberant that usual, and this serves the music well. Dryness makes its taste like cardboard, but we're having chocolate mousse now. Geniusas' encores of Wagner's Elegie (hints of Tristan), Leonid Desyatnikov's madcap Chasing Rondo and Grieg's Vision (from Lyric Pieces) close the first of two Young Explorers recitals on a winning high.

Recital 2 (8 pm)

The Schloss' longtime avian residents are on full song today, noisily greeting the second of the Young Explorers recitals by the Finn Satu Paavola. The personable young lady looks far younger that her bio suggests. She's supposed to be 37 but appears less that half that age. A teenager appearing in Husum would be a first. But she is as serious as they come, playing a rare combo of Sigismond Thalberg and Charles-Valentin Alkan, both early Romantics. The two Thalberg opera fantasies (after Mercadante and Donizetti) showcase the best bel canto qualities on the piano, a singing line and florid filigree.

One almost feared she be overmatched in Alkan's Sonata “The Four Ages”, a wild 4-movement beast that begins with the uproarious 20s and ending with a resigned 50s (people did not live that long in the early 19th century). Her phrasing is clipped and almost awkward in its opening but she soon settled as the ages progressed. One supposes it gets easier when the tempos slow down. She compensates for her diminutive physical stature by projecting a big sound in the octaves and chords. Her two encores, Thalberg's well-known transcription Casta Diva (Bellini's Norma) and obscure Air d'Eglise (Fetis) served as slow and satisfying bookends.    

The Art of Listening,
a collage I made from last year's festival.

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