Classical: Twenty four hands are better than two

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The Independent Culture



PIANOWORKS, a series of 17 concerts rammed into four days, is a lusty celebration of the piano - and I use the present tense since it is intended that last weekend's four-day festival should turn into an annual event.

The atmosphere in the Blackheath Concert Halls was gloriously anarchic: concerts over-running their schedules, a hint of chaos in the organisation, artists mingling with the audience - and vice versa in the concluding "Piano Bash", when six pianists oh-so-miraculously materialised from the crowd to join the six already onstage in two pieces for 24 hands, one of them Czerny's delightfully outrageous arrangement of Rossini's overture to Semiramide ("Demisemiramide", someone behind me quipped).

The music, much of it rewardingly obscure, was presented in various forms - solo recitals, chamber concerts, a cabaret evening, a tribute to Percy Grainger (whose heterodox muse watched over the entire festival), an event for kids, and even a late-night jazz special. The backbone was provided by a team of six pianists: Stephen Coombs, who devised and planned the proceedings and Marc-Andre Hamelin, Seta Tanyel, Artur Pizarro, Jonathan Plowright and Leslie Howard, who offered some staggering Liszt playing.

The centerpiece of the entire event was the Sunday afternoon recital given by Marc-Andre Hamelin, who must now be the closest - post-Horowitz - to claiming the title of "world's greatest pianist". You don't often see concert-going middle-England pressed against the recital room door, waiting to rush in and grab the best seats. You do at Hamelin recitals, and it is hardly surprisingly: his technique is breathtakingly virtuosic, but he uses it to give himself space to think about the music. Hamelin can interpret where other pianists are worried about getting all the notes and his musical curiosity guarantees programmes that eschew the Mozart - Beethoven - Schumann axis of less adventurous players.

At Blackheath, Hamelin presented a fascinating mix of Alkan (including the torrential variations of Le Festin d'Esope), Medtner's Sonata reminiscenza (he has just recorded all 14 Medtner sonatas for Hyperion), seven of Godowsky's scintillating, Faberge reworkings of the Chopin studies (which he is likewise recording) and the world premiere of Le Festin d'Alkan by the Scottish composer, Ronald Stevenson, 70 this year and now one of the country's senior musical statesman. Le Festin d'Alkan is an extensive demonstration of Stevenson's contention that "composition, transcription and variation are essentially the same thing".

It is a deeply compelling, even disturbing exploration of the bowels of the piano, a lesson in how to make the instrument tell. The first movement is a dark fantasy, baleful, frightening, and as black as anything Stevenson has written. The second varies Alkan's G minor Barcarolle and the third is a set of free variations which sweeps up the piano literature in reference, studded with three fearsomely difficult cadenzas.

Half an hour in length, it is certainly one of Stevenson's most important work to date and a major addition to the repertoire. Whether other pianists can play with Hamelin's calm aplomb and electrifying precision remains to be seen.