Music Review: Six of the best

Anglo-German Piano Series/ RNCM
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Anglo-German Piano Series/ RNCM, Manchester, 17-23 January: Final concert climaxing in six pianists playing `Hexameron'

Liszt wrote Hexameron with five other keyboard lions of the 1830s for a performance that never took place. It was the brainchild of the "Revolutionary" Princess Cristina Belgiojoso, who kept the embalmed cadaver of a lover in a wardrobe. She ingeniously described Liszt's rival, Sigismond Thalberg, as the "first pianist" in the world, and Liszt himself as the "only pianist", after their famous piano duel in her salon.

As the basis of Hexameron, the Princess chose the March from Bellini's I Puritan, which Liszt arranged, as well as supplying an introduction and a variation, interludes and a finale, all by way of uniting (and nearly upstaging) the contributions to Hexameron from Thalberg, Pixis, Herz, Czerny and Chopin.

What Princess Belgiojoso failed to bring about, Dr Richard Schneider succeeded in doing as his farewell as director of the Goethe-Institut in Manchester on Friday evening. Six young German and British pianists played Hexameron as the conclusion to a week-long festival at the Royal Northern College of Music, in which they each gave a solo recital and, on Friday, also played a single work before the Variations. In these, Claudius Tanski took the lion's share with all Liszt's contributions at one piano, and rather underplayed a sense of idealistic aspiration. At the second piano, 23-year-old Tim Horton, a pupil of Alfred Brendel, manipulated Thalberg's three-handed effects polydexterously, Lars Vogt rattled off the wicked octaves of Pixis with great spirit, Ian Fountain played the pretty Herz variation gracefully, Steven Osborne then pushed him off the stool and attacked Czerny's meaty variation like a Scotch terrier, and Rolf Plagge brought the much-needed lyrical contrast in the Chopin variation.

All are first-class players, though some have yet to make their names widely known. Tim Horton had the least ingratiating piece to play before the interval in Busoni's characteristically questing Toccata of 1921. Yet this also offered relief from piano-bashing and a subtle range of touch and expression that was distinctly welcome. (Horton is clearly a bit more than a regular pianist: giving the first recital in the week, he had included two pieces by Stockhausen.) Tanski, a king-size virtuoso, kicked off with Liszt's Rigoletto Paraphrase. Ian Fountain encompassed Scriabin's transfixed and visionary Sonata No 7 with surprising, perhaps too evident, ease. Rolf Plagge swaggered through Liszt's Tarantella, bristling with rapid repeated notes. And - a slightly odd choice in the context - Lars Vogt mused his way through Brahms's Fourth Ballade.

But really the whole show was stolen by Steven Osborne, who improvised for a substantial time on "Mary had a little lamb". He told us he was influenced by two jazz pianists, and whoever guessed them would get a drink. Nobody did, but apparently they were Keith Jarrett and Oscar Peterson. Osborne is decidedly a classical player - he doesn't have a jazzer's way of pulling the keys down at all - but in three highly contrasted sections, he was intensively inventive and irresistibly mischievous.

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