Classical: The century, by numbers


KATHRYN STOTT must have had fun planning her 40th-birthday piano recital at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday. She chose a piece, or group of pieces, to represent each decade of the century, beginning with Ravel and ending with Graham Fitkin.

Stott is one of the busiest pianists around, both as a soloist and chamber musician - she gave two Wigmore recitals with colleagues earlier this month and has recently formed a Tango trio called Tango Tiempo. Far from making Saturday evening into a fussy gala, she just got on with the job, dressed for comfort in trousers and a plain sleeveless top, and played from music.

Which created no barrier nor feeling that she was under-prepared, as her firm yet melting projection of Ravel's Jeux d'eau immediately made clear. She was equally fluent in Faure's 12th Nocturne, whose disquieting harmonies and unexpected continuity unfolded without strain; warmly natural.

The Twenties were represented by Gershwin's three Preludes, and the Thirties by Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Corelli, his last solo piano work, which was expertly shaped by Stott.

So far, all the composers were ones with whom she has become particularly identified. She has a certain objectivity and a strong rhythmic impulse, both of which suit music marrying the popular with a sense of history. Taking slight chronological licence, her choice for the Forties was Bachianas Brasileiras No.4, by Villa-Lobos, which moulds Brazilian folklore in Baroque forms,

You might just suspect Shostakovich of doing something similar in the last of his 24 Preludes and Fugues of 1951, because it sounds as if an attempt to remember the tune of "On Ilkley Moor" gets lost in dour academic counterpoint.

The Sixties and Seventies also seemed years of austerity, in this programme, though Stott was as gentle and considerate as she could be with Peter Maxwell Davies' Five Little Pieces. After these post-Webern miniatures, Aaron Copland's Night Thoughts, written for the 1973 Van Cliburn Piano Competition, seemed even more dyspeptic until its final velvety chords unrolled in some sort of gesture of conciliation. As Copland's last piano work, it seems strangely negative.

Its lack of rhythmic interest was made good with Astor Piazzolla's Three Preludes, though the first rambles freely, like an introduction to the others. In these, as in so much of what he did, Piazzolla had problems with endings. Endings in music which don't conceal their origins in improvisation tend to be arbitrary anyway.

But Graham Fitkin's Relent (as in "relentless", I assume) was obviously pitched at an effective conclusion. Essentially, it's a toccata, and a showpiece for Stott's strong technique. I liked a passage with the right hand vigorously pounding across the left, and the opening was striking. The composer's programme note talked about time, and marking time, but doing it sometimes made for less than gripping listening.

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