Arts: Classical - Vivid pictures with a light and truthful touch

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IF YOU reflect on the number of Japanese students you see at piano recitals, and on the way western classical music has been cultivated in Japan for a century, it's surprising we do not hear more about Japanese pianists. After Mitsuko Uchida, one of the finest pianists anywhere today, how many more can you name?

Noriko Ogawa has steadily consolidated her reputation ever since she won third prize at the Leeds piano competition in 1987. She has made a fair number of CDs and was recently interviewed on Radio 3's CD Review and on Woman's Hour, but it has been some time since she gave a recital at the Wigmore Hall, London's busiest recital showcase.

On Monday, her programme at the hall featured two big cycles of character pieces - Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition, which are illustrative in tone, and Schumann's Davidsbundlertanze, which are not, though like his other cycles, this one is programmed according to a private scenario. As in his better-known Carnaval, Schumann had in mind a kaleidoscopic review of moods and characters at a ball, telling his fiancee Clara that while Carnaval had masks, the Davidsbundlertanze had faces.

The challenge to a pianist is to respond to the contrasted moods, to be psychologically nimble. As at any good party, we should feel bombarded with impressions, and feel high on excitement. The opening number sets things spinning at once. And yet immediately afterwards comes a delicately reflective piece, which Ogawa played both simply and sensitively. In fact, her telling cantabile in the quieter numbers, was more compelling than her treatment of the boisterous dances, where she played just a bit on the safe side. There's one spiky, knees-up number that almost sounds like Prokofiev, but the burlesque edge wasn't very apparent here. All in all, this was a rather well-mannered, if an undoubtedly musical, party.

Frankly, I wouldn't mind if Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition were banned for 10 years. You could, of course, say that any number of pieces by Chopin or sonatas by Beethoven have become equally hackneyed. The difference is that Mussorgsky relies on musical caricature, a degree of sensationalism, albeit in the best sense, rather than on argument and growth. Pictures have their fullest impact on an innocent ear, and to compensate for their over-familiarity, one or two pianists have treated them to some quite startling touching-up. Ogawa, who has also recorded them, is not one of these. She played these vivid evocations with directness and strength, feeling no need to cast them in a Gothic light. On Mussorgsky's terms she accounted for the music truthfully.

As introductions to both halves, she played Takemitsu's Les Yeux Clos II, and the prelude to Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina - both picturesque in different ways - very nicely, and added Takemitsu's gentle Raintree Sketch II as an encore.