Charles Owen, Wigmore Hall<br></br>Elena Riu, Wigmore Hall, London

Alertness, wit and a way with birds

By Adrian Jack
Friday 27 December 2002 01:00

With Albeniz, you have to imagine the composer himself at the piano, amazing his admirers, who are, perhaps, clustered round him informally, some even draping themselves over the instrument. Albeniz was a great improviser as well as a great fabricator of tall stories – certainly as far as his own life was concerned. It's hard to recapture the spell he must have cast. Last week, Charles Owen came as close as any pianist I can think of. He also had great rapport with his audience, which included some well-known pianists, and brimmed with confidence from the moment he marched on stage.

His alert and witty way with Haydn's G major Sonata, Hoboken 40, was perfect, and his sharpness of observation – if ears can observe – in Messiaen's short bird-studies, written towards the end of the composer's life, was acute; he might have been saying, "Listen, d'you hear?" Oddly enough, he did very little with Ravel's "Valses nobles et sentimentales" except play them neatly, and a bit primly. As pieces that have become rather hackneyed, it's time to give them a rest. And surely Ravel's Sonatine was a bit otiose afterwards.

But Owen really came into his own again after the interval, with a performance of Janacek's Sonata that was passionately committed and rhythmically sharp. (He has just released an all-Janacek CD.) Finally came four pieces from Albeniz's Iberia, which allowed him to show a much warmer side of himself. The usual fault of pianists is to make Albeniz's music sound cluttered, whereas its most extravagant moments should be both sumptuous and brilliant. Owen combined sensuousness with clarity and precision, only just failing to hold together the climax of "Triana".

He might consider Albeniz for his next disc. As his solo debut in this hall, the evening was impressive, and a delicious piece by Billy Mayerl followed by a Novelette by Poulenc rounded it off nicely.

Two days later, the Venezuelan-born pianist Elena Riu offered a recital of Spanish music ranging from Soler (a slightly paler version of Domenico Scarlatti) to the contemporary Basque composer Gabriel Erkoreka. Riu has a sweet and natural personality and introduced everything herself. But it wasn't always easy to hear what she said, at least from the back row, and her playing was equally under-projected, though graceful and sensitive. It suited Mompou's gentle Song and Dance No 2 well enough, but a sequence of six single-movement sonatas by Soler sent me to sleep.

Riu avoided the bigger pieces of Albeniz, which might well have been beyond her anyway, and instead, played the more modest "Rumores de la Caleta" from Memories of Travel and "Malaguena" from España. The impassioned vocal style in the middle section of "Rumores" needed much more intensity, which came briefly and almost for the only time in Falla's Fourth Spanish Dance. Erkoreka's "Jaia", written two years ago, was a sort of scrambled evocation of the atmosphere of Albeniz's "Iberia"; its dark, even murky character seemed to call for more tension, and because Riu's playing was so placid, its rhythmic freedom seemed flabby. The Wigmore Hall is not large, but Riu's relaxed and intimate style would have been suited to an even smaller room.

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