Romain Descharmes, Wigmore Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The hall was crammed to the gills with the great-and-good of musical Dublin, plus the top brass of the sponsor of the AXA Dublin International Piano Competition of 2006, here to cheer on their latest winner as he made his Wigmore debut.

The 26-year-old Romain Descharmes opted for a gentle start, with Ravel's neoclassical Sonatine. He gave the opening movement a warmly expansive tone, letting the music flower with lazy grace. But in the Minuet something was missing: Ravel's art-that-conceals-art depends here on the contrast between wet and dry, pedalled and détaché, but Descharmes pedalled heavily throughout. And though he created novel colourings in the finale, his control was not smooth enough to create the requisite silky effect.

Then came Brahms's massive Third Sonata, written when he was just 20. It's a virtuoso piece: here, Descharmes would have to be on his mettle. It begins volcanically, with the keyboard covered in giant crashing leaps, an opening flourish demanding a stonemason's precision: what we got was a wild scramble, ending in a splodge. And so it went on, with Brahms's theatrical mood-changes blunted and blurred. Descharmes could play the notes, his sonorities were vivid and interesting, but he gave no sense of the architecture of the work.

Then came Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, which pianists shouldn't attempt unless they can handle its technical challenges. Descharmes just about could, but, boy, could we feel the stress. What finally saved the day was a left-field surprise: Frederic Rzewski's extraordinary Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.

This American composer is a Marxist Modernist who practises what he preaches, reflecting economic struggle while pushing the piano to hitherto unheard frontiers. Rapidly repeated note-clusters suggested machines punctuating the wall of sound in the mill: these gathered force and momentum until Descharmes was slamming both forearms down on the keyboard. The thunder was dispelled first by a dehumanised boogie, then by a gorgeous Southern blues. Descharmes, who delivered it brilliantly, was now in his element. Way to go.

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