Keyboard Evening 3, The Warehouse, London

By Keith Potter
Thursday 12 December 2002 01:00
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Four pianists in two recitals, the first tripartite, on consecutive nights. And 17 composers offering a wide range of 20th- and 21st-century music from Stefan Wolpe's infamous Battle Piece of 1943-7 to three world premieres from British composers. This was all unusual, even though there is more of a glut of good British pianists specialising in new music than ever.

The Austrian Isabel Ettenauer makes a feature of the toy piano: here a "grand" toy model, plus several miniature ones. But the results were disappointing, not least because of the high degree of action noise from her surprisingly ill-toned toy "grand". The composers, too, suggested they had little faith that a toy piano could achieve anything that a normal piano couldn't have done much better. Only the very palpable sense of struggle against bizarre odds displayed in Richard Whalley's equally bizarrely titled Prestissimo con violenza, ma molto expressivo con intimissimo sentimento made a strong impression. Ettenauer seemed a capable player, though.

Clive Williamson, representing piano with electronics, gave of his usual best to conclude this essentially enterprising "Keyboard Evening" in the British Music Information Centre's Cutting Edge series. But Javier Alvarez's now classic Papalotl aside, this estimable stalwart of new-music pianism could do little with the derivative and interminable works chosen.

It accordingly fell to Wllliam Howard to suggest, with all his understated and underrated skills, that "straight piano" is perhaps best after all. His sequence of characteristic compositions by Piers Hellawell, Howard Skempton and Colin Matthews was most notable for including two new additions to Skempton's ongoing series of Reflections: one almost Schumannesque, the other slow and nicely mysterious.

Mystery, overpowering emotions, the familiar as well as the inscrutably unfamiliar, all deconstructed with sometimes Ivesian, sometimes already post-serial-sounding disregard for conventional musical sense: these are just some of the ingredients of Wolpe's Battle Piece. On the night following the Keyboard Evening, Nicolas Hodges despatched this 25-minute, seven-movement work with the mixture of passion and cool control of all technical problems which has seen him rise right to the top of the heap of British new-music pianists. Before this, he demonstrated steely fingers in typically abrasive Ralph Shapey and more Wolpe, and impressive understanding of very different pieces by Feldman and Cage. A fitting end to the Wolpe centenary celebrations.

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