CLASSICAL MUSIC / The three-card trick: After winning the 1981 Leeds Piano Competition, Ian Hobson just seemed to disappear. In fact, he was busy in America, rediscovering the repertoire of the past. Now he's back with a new work. Robert Maycock reports

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What drives Ian Hobson? He's famous for three things, only one of which is making music. In Britain he was the object of scorn from Peter Donohoe fans when he won the 1981 Leeds Piano Competition - never mind that Donohoe, sixth in Leeds, promptly carried off the Tchaikovsky prize in Moscow and went on to international stardom. In the United States, this year, Hobson has taken up the romantic cause of an unknown composer who died before he could record his own piano concerto. Hobson's tribute to Kevin Oldham is out here on CD this month.

Neither of those things is what he is really about. Yet they are clues to something fundamental: Hobson is not your stereotype keyboard virtuoso. For a start, he has a much more interesting and varied life. It isn't rooted at all in his native Britain, and that is why he did not establish a Donohoe-like omnipresence on the local scene after Leeds.

By then he had already been living in the States for six years. He moved there after studying at the Royal Academy of Music and Cambridge University - that was just before the Alexander Goehr regime came in, when the influential figures were David Willcocks, Peter le Huray and Hugh Macdonald; Hobson's own supervisor was Philip Radcliffe.

Initially Hobson went to Yale. He was then an organist as well as a pianist, and wanted to pursue studies in harpsichord and conducting. For nearly two decades his base has been the University of Illinois, where he is resident piano professor. He has six children. It sounds like the achievement of a settled, well-respected provincial life. But that isn't the reality, nor was it ever the aim.

The point about Illinois is that the position was, and remains, flexible enough to let him go off for competitions or recital tours. At the same time he was always interested in the academic pursuit of music. 'If I was playing concertos every night, I'd go crazy.' Then, too, he can conduct. To begin, he was assistant conductor of the college orchestra, and 10 years ago he founded a professional chamber orchestra, the Sinfonia da Camera. It's in the breadth of this 'three- pronged approach' that he finds his musical fulfilment.

The music that he goes for is all of a piece with the attitude. The contemporary repertoire that figures in next week's London recital isn't typical. It's there because he was asked. Benjamin Lees, the American composer, heard Hobson's recording of the Rachmaninov Preludes and wanted to write for him: result, Mirrors, a suite to which Lees has just added a fifth movement (and there may be more). But Hobson is hard-pressed to come up with other new music - an orchestral work by David Liptak, a pupil of George Crumb, and a recent piano piece by the campus composer Paul Zonn.

Exploring the past, he agrees, is closer to his heart. In one of his largest projects, he set up a recital and recording series called the London Piano School, heard at the Wigmore Hall six years ago. It was a collaboration with the English musicologist Nicholas Temperley, who was already working in Illinois when Hobson arrived. The idea was to set out from the leading composers active in 18th- and 19th-century London - Clementi, Field, Sterndale Bennett. Temperley had already re-established George Frederic Pinto, who died of dissolution at 20 and left three magnificent piano sonatas. Between them, he and Hobson tucked into names such as Thomas Busby and Edmund Thomas Chipp. The result wasn't a rewriting of history, but an overdue expansion of awareness and a shifting of perspectives into proper focus.

The other fruitful era for rediscovery has been the late 19th century, moving into the 20th - the Rachmaninov age. Leopold Godowsky, the Polish-born virtuoso who settled in the United States, is one of his heroes. Advanced piano students may have come across his devilish arrangements of the Chopin Studies for left hand alone, but there is plenty of original Godowsky going unheard.

Currently Hobson is engrossed in a concerto by Henry Holden Huss, which the conductor Dennis Russell Davies tipped him off about: they are playing it at Carnegie Hall this year. A superbly obscure American, Huss wrote the concerto in 1898 and left very little else from the remaining half-century of his life. It appears that he wrote the concerto to promote himself as a player, but the plan backfired. One account of his performance says, on the contrary, that he was too lethargic to be a good advocate for the music. It is a full-scale virtuoso barnstormer, and Hobson is clearly eager to give it the treatment.

He keeps a sense of proportion about these pieces. 'I think it's my job as a performer to try and cover up the cracks in the writing, to make it as alive as possible, not to give in to the structural weaknesses.' It makes a good cue to talk about Kevin Oldham, because if ever there were a case of special pleading, this is it. Not that Hobson sees it that way. The cue for the recording was the Catalyst label's collection Memento Bittersweet, five pieces by men who have, or had, the HIV virus. The aim is to show what might have been, and the record company is making donations out of sales to the Classical Action charity, which raises funds for AIDS programmes.

Oldham's piano concerto is the biggest of the pieces, and not the most polished. That isn't really the point. Its story is fundamentally the composer's determination just to get it down, somehow, and play it. A colleague, Steve Cohen, orchestrated it to Oldham's instructions, and his home-town orchestra, the Kansas City Symphony, agreed to play. Oldham discharged himself from a New York hospital in January 1993, against advice, to perform the solo. He just about got through it, with many passages inaudible, but received an ovation all the same. He went straight back to hospital and died six weeks later.

It was a chance acquaintance with Hobson's New York manager - Oldham didn't even know that was what she was - that led to Hobson's own involvement. The recording was planned anyway, with the composer (reputedly a fine pianist when well) as soloist. If I can't make it, Oldham had said, there's one pianist I would like to do it.

Admiration for Hobson's Godowsky recordings was the reason. So the approach was made. Send me the music, Hobson responded. 'I started playing through it. It was very powerful, honest stuff, well written. And I thought, why not?' The music persuaded him, he says, not the composer's situation or the charitable aims. At the sessions in April, the musicians had to be whisked in and out as fag-haters picketed the hall and gay activists set up a counter-demonstration.

Now it's there for all to judge. Yes, Hobson agrees, the outer movements are full of almost anybody's and everybody's concerto: Ravel left-hand at the opening, Rachmaninov Three in the cadenza. But the central Andante tranquillo is the core, a simple and unpretentious lyrical statement. A solo arrangement of this slow movement is on Hobson's Wigmore Hall programme on Friday.

Recital (Beethoven, Ravel, Chopin, Brahms, Lees, Oldham): Fri 7.30 Wigmore Hall, W1 (071-935 2141). 'Memento Bittersweet' is on BMG's Catalyst label

(Photograph omitted)

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