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Arts: Classical - All pedal and no drive

THE BRAZILIAN pianist Ricardo Castro won the Leeds Piano Competition in 1993. He's made a fair number of compact discs, including a five-strong set of Chopin, and it was Chopin he chose for the major part of his Wigmore Hall recital last Wednesday evening.

He began with three of the later Nocturnes - the dramatic one in C minor, Op 48 no 1, followed by the Op 55 pair. At first, despite a suave platform manner, Castro seemed a bit unsettled, as if he were not quite comfortable with the touch of this particular instrument. Chords were not weighed with confidence and in the closing section, the rhythms in the right hand, crossing the left- hand accompaniment with passionate insistence, were rather messily shaped. But in the two Op 55 Nocturnes, Castro's touch was no more certain either. If Chopin's contemporaries sometimes complained that he played unduly quietly, at least they didn't remark on a lack of expressive detail or colour. Here, not only was there a reluctance to play a frank "forte" when marked, but there was little in the way of dynamic contrast. It was all, rather like a tepid bath.

On a grander scale than the Nocturnes, Chopin's third Ballade ranges from a muted "mezza voce" to fortissimo passages of sonorous power, but Castro never delivered them. It wasn't just a question of decibels, but of sound quality, or commitment.

The fourth Ballade is a much more elaborately organised piece, with a sense of an epic journey traversed in something like the form of a continuous set of variations, though Chopin invented, or arrived at, his own form through his musical adventures. Castro started sensitively in the leisurely "mezza voce" musing of the opening section, but once in deeper waters, his view clouded, and lost a sense of purpose or distinctions of character from one section to the next. His tone was too often woolly, and the climactic chords preceding the tumultuous coda were sketchy. Overall, an underwhelming experience.

After the interval he played the two Op 27 Nocturnes, ignoring the endless possibilities for colouring and subtle contrasts of articulation in the right hand, while by comparison, his left was too loud. Then he went straight into the Barcarolle, which made an effective sequence.

By this time, I must confess to feeling distinctly numbed, and indeed, if Castro's left foot hadn't been tucked back under the stool, I would have suspected he had the soft pedal down the whole way through.

The music of Castro's compatriot, Villa-Lobos, promised a bit more excitement, though a lot of his Hommage a Chopin, written in 1949 for the centenary of the composer's death, vamped about over pedal notes and seemed here, at least, rather casually organised.

Choro No 5, composed much earlier, in 1925, had a more characteristically Latin-American rhythmic character, though like everything else, Castro spoilt it by using too much pedal. Festa no Sertao (Jungle Festival) began rather like a Brazilian version of the Shrovetide Fair in Petrushka, with syncopated rhythms propelled by excited jiggling. It could have done with more bite.