Havard Gimse / Sergei Babayan, Wigmore Hall, London

By Adrian Jack
Tuesday 18 March 2003 01:00

Rarely is a pianist so at ease as Havard Gimse. The mechanics of playing seemed to come naturally, so that he could concentrate on listening to himself. The first half of his programme particularly invited this attentive quality, with the strange Norwegian resonances of five folk-song arrangements by Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981), and the rather stop-start set of variations, forever fading wistfully, that make up Grieg's misleadingly titled Ballade. The theme was so delicately played, so subtly suggestive, it seemed a pity to embark on the variations at all, and Grieg didn't have a talent for building big structures.

Sibelius, who did, reputedly disliked the piano, even though he wrote a great deal for it; the first two of his Three Lyric Pieces, Op 41, sounded like transcriptions of orchestral music, with a lot of tremolando. Though Gimse was especially interesting in quiet music, he packed a punch here. And after the interval, he gave us a serious and expressive performance of Chopin's 24 Preludes, thought through as a spiritual journey, from the spontaneity of the preamble to the passionate grandeur of the final piece.

Sergei Babayan, an Armenian pianist living in the US, threw down the gauntlet on Wednesday with a torrential Sonata by the Australian, Carl Vine. To soothe a savage breast, a gentle piece by Arvo Pärt followed. For the rest, Babayan avoided the usual stiffness of many recital programmes by grouping miscellaneous pieces by a particular composer together – four by Grieg and seven by Rachmaninov in the first half, 22 short pieces by Bach in the second.

This made a fascinating sequence, since they were not well known. In fugues, he hammered out the subject peremptorily, but he played a Minuet in G minor and a Sinfonia in E flat with a delicately muted sonority. Counterpoint was clear, and rhythm springy. As an encore, he played the first Variation from the Goldberg with a compelling authority. Perhaps, next time, he'll play the whole set.

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