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The Distinguished Artist At Work

New York
12/01/2015 -  
“Préludes–Etudes–Variations: Downtown/Uptown”: Claude Debussy: Preludes, Book 1
Frederic Chopin: Variations brillantes in B flat, Opus 12
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Etudes-Tableaux, Opus 33
Karol Szymanowski: Variations in B flat minor, Opus 3

Ian Hobson (Pianist)

I. Hobson (© School of Music, University of Illinois)

That most ungainly title for this series of six concerts–“Préludes–Etudes–Variations: Downtown/Uptown”–was hardly perturbing to its master executioner, Ian Hobson. But one doubts that anything would disturb this most imperturbable artist. Mr Hobson is a scholar, pianist, conductor, writer, a most distinguished personality in the field of music. And distinguished is what characterizes his work.

The venue of SubCulture, where the first two of these concerts has taken place, is a chameleon of a concert hall. The tiny platform, with its giant Steinway, its always caring highly intelligent audiences crowding up to the stage (and later greeting the artists at the bar), the eerie turquoise lighting background with the one spot on the performer, can welcome the jauntiest, or most experimental or outrageous or conservative artist and make them look (and apparently) feel good. Add to this, long varied programs with nary an intermission for one to lose the “effect”, and you have a most inviting East Village concert hall.

Ian Hobson, tall, conservatively elegant with tie and jacket, perhaps had an affinity with his audience, but one wouldn’t have known this with his performance. Music, not personality, was his one and only goal. And he is a superior musician.

At one point, this idealism was a shortcoming, though not entirely his fault. After a month of the most super-human highly emotional Rachmaninoff by the great Russian Daniil Trifonov, the Rachmaninoff Etudes-Tableaux seemed a little too pat. Not glib, not tossed off. That would be impossible with Mr. Hobson’s total verisimilitude to his music. But in the Opus 33 works, he tried to chasten the composer’s sometimes animal energy.

As we knew from Mr. Trifonov, the composer never seemed to be comfortable with only seven or eight fingers on the piano. Mr. Hobson wanted to tame this down, and the first work simply ran away rather than bounding and rearing. The second Allegro had a Chopin-like melody but Mr. Hobson seemed to pay homage to the previous Debussy preludes, more winds, more complexities.

It was in the third Etude-Tableau that Mr. Hobson came into his own with an irresistible middle section, something which could have come from the concerti. Mr. Hobson’s impeccable technique was shown in the fifth “study picture”. And in the finale, the Steinway came into its own, with all the different registers shown to the fullest.

It was polished good playing. Yet these “pictures” were buried deep down amidst the roulades of fingers.

The other grand work in the recital was Book 1 of Debussy’s Preludes, and here, perhaps, Mr. Hobson’s objectivity was so appropriate. Rachmaninoff was a romantic, through and through. Debussy was the opposite, he needed only the hints of Spanish rhythms, or bells or winds speaking over the plains. (In his always illuminating program notes, Paul Griffiths notes that the composer put the picturesque title at the bottom of each work, so as not to turn the musician into a painter.)

No matter what the picture, Mr. Hobson never allowed his fingers to drift over the keys, to given even the faintest illusion of improvisation. Yet if one wasn’t lulled into ancient Greece or a sunken church, the pianist offered the beauty of pure piano playing. I have heard “Veils” played with an excess of color and emotion. Mr. Hobson allowed the diaphanous sounds to hint, ever so slightly, at the transparent objects. For “The Wind on the Plains”, Mr. Hobson played those mean arpeggios not like a torrent but a mental impression. (And we hardly even knew this until he let the final suspended B-flat to remain for a long time on the keys.)

He was perhaps most at home in “What the West Wind Saw”, a thundery, image of storm and turbulence, where Mr. Hobson allowed his tremendous technique to take over the keyboard. His lightness–as in “Puck” and “Minstrels”–was never an abandoned lightness. Shakespeare’s creature was not the movie’s Mickey Rooney, but a more controlled Royal Shakespeare Company Puck. And “Minstrels” was neither African or Caucasian: it was a reproduction of an old American art form.

The evening started and finished with two early and unfamiliar works. Chopin’s Variations Brillantes were based on an opera melody Ferdinand Hérold, giving the pianist plenty of time to exercise the fingers. It gave the aura of a salon piece, but towards the end gave hints of Chopin: resonances at the top of the piano, a few bars of eccentric modulation toward the end.

Karol Szymanowski’s Opus 3, another set of variations, was another crowd-pleaser (though SubCulture audiences know the difference between substance and excitement), hardly giving hints of the composer’s later very exotic, very personal loves for remote climes, desolate lands.

Yet all of these works–and a very proper, extremely restrained Chopin Berceuse encore–showed Ian Hobson at his finest. My vulgarian brain cells longed for something more idiosyncratic, more ardent or disruptive. This, though, is not Mr. Hobson’s way. He is always true to his music and (as an obvious corollary) to himself.

CODA: Mr. Hobson will play more variations, etudes, preludes and a few world premieres, these, though at Merkin Concert Hall, on January 19 (Chopin, Robert Chumbley, Rachmaninoff), February 22 (Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff), March 23 (Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Yehudi Wyner, Debussy), and April 13 (Fauré, Chopin, Schumann, Rachmaninoff).

Harry Rolnick



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