Classical: A sharpener to the spirit

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The Independent Culture
MORE TALENT is being given its London launch in the Sunday morning recitals in the magnificent top gallery of the Wallace Collection, tucked away behind Selfridges. The third series opened with a Norwegian violin- piano duo, whose programme consisted of three full-scale sonatas by Grieg, Janacek and Brahms - which, without an interval, felt a bit long. One of the sonatas could have been dropped in favour of a couple of short pieces in order to lighten the burden on our concentration.

Perhaps, too, Brahms's serene G Major Sonata should have come first and Grieg's more extrovert, folk-inspired Sonata in the same key, played last, when our spirits needed bracing. In this particular context, and given the violinist Henning Kraggerud's aristocratic refusal to be effusive, the Brahms seemed a little bit reticent. A lovely player, he was a bit too tasteful to be paired with such a self-effacing pianist. None of these works required mere piano "accompaniment", but called instead for a true partnership of equals.

The second concert, last Sunday, was the London public's first chance to hear the 21- year-old Ashley Wass in a full- length recital. He won the London Piano Competition last year and has also played concertos on several occasions in the capital.

Make no mistake about it: this boy is special. What I love about his playing is its sincerity and tenderness. He doesn't just caress the piano; he probes its soft depths with the utmost consideration.

At the Wallace, he often withheld too much tone, as if unduly conscious of the revealing intimacy of the superb acoustics. He also seemed more nervous and ill at ease than I have ever known him, so that some of Shostakovich's Fugue No 15 became a gabble, and the rollicking finale of Beethoven's E-flat Sonata, Op 31 No 3, ran away on automatic pilot.

Still, the Sonata's opening showed what an exquisitely melting sound he has, and he settled down pretty well for Cesar Franck's Prelude, Aria & Finale, the least known of his three great triptychs inspired by Bach. It is remarkable, above all, for its sumptuous, ingenious harmonies and far-flung textures (like Rachmaninov, Franck had huge hands), but if it doesn't fall apart altogether, it can drag.

Wass avoided both dangers by keeping the music on the move, refusing to wallow, and not overdoing the triumphant bravura of the finale. As Franck gathers in the thematic strands in his serene conclusion, Wass seemed to search for subtleties of balance and an evanescent quality that remained elusive. The quest in itself was noble, and in the coda of the central Aria, he had already achieved a most wonderful sense of transcendental peace.

Powerful though Wass can be (he played the big Samuel Barber Sonata superbly in the competition), Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata didn't really seem his thing. There are plenty of other pianists with the right streak of ruthlessness, and I would rather he cultivated the fine qualities he has.

Further concerts in this `Independent'-sponsored series on Sundays at 11.30 am, 15, 22, 29 November & 6 December

Adrian Jack