MUSIC / Marginal sketches of Spain: Paul Roberts - Wigmore Hall

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IT'S ONE of the more appealing features of British musical life that most composers can get a hearing - once or twice, at least. The catch is that prejudices settle fast and hard.

Somebody like Maurice Ohana - Andalucian-Jewish by ancestry, born in Morocco, settled in France - seems destined to stay on the margins here. Like the face, the music doesn't fit. It is modern, but has nothing to do with schools and cliques. Its impact is immediate and instinctive, but it refuses to depend on cosy familiarities. It seems to belong to both Africa and Europe, but never plunders exotic styles. All this sounds like a description of flamenco, and admirers of that art seem to feel at home with Ohana's idiom.

In the final years of his life - he died last November - a few London performances were starting to spring up. Lontano brought him here for a powerful music-theatre project, but his presence in concerts has been due almost entirely to the pianist Paul Roberts, and the Wigmore Hall recital on Tuesday, dedicated to Ohana's memory, centred on the set of six Etudes d'interpretation that he wrote for Roberts in 1982. They are pieces to confound typecasting. Some deliberately continue the studies of instrumental technique that preoccupied Debussy in his Etudes. But beyond that, there's an abrasive, quirky spontaneity, a speculative rhythmic freedom in the winding, slightly dislocated lines, and a contrasted liking for densely voiced chords and violent attacks that ambush unwary listeners.

The music also presents physical challenges to the player without the rewards of flashy display, unless you count the spectacular sweeps across the keyboard in the final piece. It makes the Debussy Etudes sound almost extravagantly lush. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea for Roberts to programme three of those immediately afterwards, for they don't flatter Ohana's range of piano textures. But they certainly offset the distinctive voice, the cohesion and the sometimes alarming intensity of his music.

Roberts himself, you will be expecting to hear, is also typecast; but he has made his own choice to specialise in French and Spanish music. He plays to his strengths, which include a fine ear for shades of tone colour and an alertness for quick changes of mood. They equipped him to perform the first book of Debussy's Preludes quite beautifully.

He is one of those pianists who appear to be in private communion with their instrument, shutting out awareness of the audience. That's fine so long as he does not lapse into aloofness: it happened more in the Estampes at the start of the recital and in Manuel de Falla's formidable Fantasia baetica. But it was the right piece for the evening, one that gives clues to Ohana's formative experiences, and a reminder that the masterpieces of Spanish piano music aren't exactly hackneyed.

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