Review: CLASSICAL MUSIC Andrew Ball Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Three funerals and a transcendental experience: Andrew Ball doesn't believe in making life easy either for himself or for his listeners. But the results in his Wigmore Hall recital on Monday - a trio of funeral- inspired pieces in the first half, centering on a specially commissioned new work by James Wood, followed by Ives's "Concord" Sonata - were often rewarding, indeed inspiring, suggesting once again that this English pianist is severely undervalued.

Though best known as a champion of 20th-century music, Ball framed the new Wood with Liszt and Chopin. He began with Liszt's La notte, intended for its composer's own funeral: risky, since its gloomy Wagnerian material unfolds rather elusively. Despite well-judged mood changes, the overall impression remained a bit diffuse.

Wood's Children at a Funeral, prompted by the natural but knowing responses of children at the memorial service for the composer's father, requires a prepared piano specially hung with some Heath-Robinsonish contraptions involving lengths of rope and two assistants. At just 10 minutes, it admirably harnesses Wood's imagination, elsewhere too often trapped in over-ambitious schemes. Some beautifully ethereal, sustained sounds alternate, in the piece's second half, with already established, more familiar, gamelan- like sonorities and rhythms. A little masterpiece, played by Ball with what seemed characteristic scrupulousness.

In Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata, security and the right atmosphere only arrived with the exposition repeat. There was dreamy playing, though, in the central sections of both middle movements, and the final Presto showed appropriate volatility and controlled fingerwork.

Ball certainly has both the technique to deal with the "Concord' Sonata's torrents of notes and the musicianship to combine the excitements that this extraordinarily varied, 50-minute structure should generate with the kind of attention to detail that illuminates its composer's vision. The mixture of more rhythmic "poetry" and freer "prose" in "Emerson", the sonata's extremely tricky opening movement, would have benefited from even greater contrasts in dynamic and texture. But all three other movements soared, as Ball expertly balanced sheer digital demands with insight. The giddying mood swings of "Hawthorne" were vividly caught, its stylistic amalgam expertly conveyed. He is especially good at still centres: in "Hawthorne", the mesmerising passage involving clusters was magically played; the serene chordal presentations of the "Fate" motif from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (with some extra high notes not in the most commonly used published score) were movingly invoked. The quiet simplicity of "The Alcotts" and the rapt contemplation of nature in the concluding "Thoreau" were individually characterised, yet also made convincing parts of the totality. Philippa Davies played the optional flute part in "Thoreau" from the balcony, but here the mystery was missing, for once.