REVIEW: The Ian Hobson Brahms Series in New York
10 December 2013
‘Johannes Brahms: Classical Inclinations in a Romantic Age’ at Benzaquen Hall and Cary Hall in New York City’s DiMenna Center
10 Sept – 14 Nov
The overriding spirit of Hobson’s concert series was not aesthetic, but athletic, writes Benjamin Laude
According to popular iconography, Brahms didn’t experience a middle age. We are accustomed to the image of a youthful, adventurous Johannes with rosy cheeks and a clean shave juxtaposed with a photo of his older self, whose long beard and handlebar moustache presumably keep buried his compositional secrets.
Whether or not Brahms’s grooming habits accurately reflect the distinct stages of his creative maturity, the two portrayals serve as useful bookends to what is a rich and varied oeuvre. A cross section of that output was the focus of a recent concert series starring pianist Ian Hobson, who performed Brahms’s complete solo and chamber works for piano in 14 concerts presented over a span of two months at the DiMenna Center For Classical Music in New York City.
Hobson, who is blessed with a kind of superhuman retention that made the project possible in the first place, nevertheless seemed at every instant overwhelmed with the sheer bulk of repertoire weighing on his shoulders. In the three violin sonatas performed with Andrés Cárdenes, Hobson shunned the many characters and colours that imbue the three works in favour of a monochromatic delivery that lacked purpose. Similarly, the outer movements of the E minor Cello Sonata played with Dmitry Kouzov were absent the pathos and drama demanded by them, respectively, while the second movement Allegretto was missing its requisite lightness and charm. In every chamber performance, Hobson communicated minimally with the other performers, keeping his eyes slavishly glued to the score while his hands kept pace with the flow of the music like a courtroom stenographer. Indeed, only in rare moments did Hobson look comfortable at the piano.
Oddly enough, Hobson approached Brahms’s solo piano works in the same computational manner, regurgitating the score through a mechanical input/output process that was insensitive both to the timbre of individual notes and the relations between them. Without the actual score in front of him, however, Hobson appeared to be employing what is surely a photographic memory so that a representation of the music could appear scrolling through his head, measure by measure. It was as if Hobson was sight-reading the music in his own mind, and the performances suffered accordingly.
His rendering of the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op 24 was nervous and unsettled in a way that gave each new variation an arbitrary character, while the fugue was too plagued with hiccups to have achieved a sense of arrival that could have salvaged the interpretation. In the two books of Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op 36, Hobson could not sufficiently meet the technical demands of the work to convey its capriciousness and bravura. The four sets of late solo works were similarly insecure in their delivery, and – though Hobson achieved an elegiac tranquility in the first Intermezzo of Op 117 that was apt and convincing – his generally jagged phrasing and carelessness of touch prevented him from confronting the subtle ambiguities of any singular work.
Herein lies the larger contradiction in Hobson’s project. In his attempt to reproduce the whole of Brahms’s output for piano, Hobson was forced to avoid the particulars that give any specific work its unique individuality and purpose. He was not playing this or that piano piece by Brahms, but all of them. He was playing Brahms in general, and in doing so he proceeded with the modus operandi of a record label that issues a complete set, bringing together several distinct pieces of music for the decidedly unmusical reason that they all happen to have been written by the same person.
Like many pianists of the past generation, Hobson has been driven to use his programming decisions to compete with the recording industry. As a consequence, Hobson has become a travelling salesman for a brand of high-end art music called ‘Brahms’ that gathers individual works into a single catalogue and treats them both as reproducible commodities and as advertisements for the esteemed genius, bearded or beardless, featured on the logo. As a result, the overriding spirit of Hobson’s concert series was not aesthetic, but athletic. He now has another feat to add to the list of Herculean labours chronicled in his artist bio. His goals lay in merely accomplishing the thing, surviving rather than savouring the music, and it is there, and there alone, that Hobson’s Brahms series can be considered a success.
Enjoy 40% off Stephen Hough's new Brahms recording
25 November 2013
Stephen Hough, our current cover artist, has released a
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Pleyel pianos shuts up shop after two centuries
15 November 2013
Pleyel fan: Chopin© Tully Potter Collection
French piano maker Pleyel has ceased operations after 206 years and the manufacture of an estimated 250,000 instruments following ‘repeated financial losses and a very low level of production’.
Founded in 1807 and famously Chopin’s piano of choice, Pleyel’s recent history had been dogged by declining sales in the face of competition from China and Korea. Since the turn of the century its annual production rates had fallen from around 1,700 pianos to just 20 labour-intensive instruments requiring 1,500 working hours to complete in 2012. Earlier this year, the company was acquired by a French investment fund but failed to gain sufficient new orders.
During its long history, Pleyel introduced the upright piano to France, built a concert hall that became the centre of 19th-century Parisian concert life, subsumed the Erard and Gaveau piano brands and was famed for its bright, clear sound.
The company’s last workshop in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis has now been closed with the loss of 14 jobs and the demise of a brand described by Pleyel’s deputy head of workshop Fabrice Perret as ‘the Ferrari of the piano world’.
French industry minister Arnaud Montebourg has said he will meet Pleyel to discuss ways to save the company.
Multi-venue simultaneous piano concert celebrates Richter
13 November 2013
Composer Jim Aitchison© Alex Walker
A concert inspired by visual artist Gerhard Richter will be
performed on four pianos – with a catch: each instrument in is a different
The Yamaha Disklaviers – separated by 300 miles – will be remotely controlled by a parent instrument at Falmouth’s Academy of Music and Theatre Arts (AMATA), and played by just one pianist, Roderick Chadwick. The other participating venues are the Royal Academy of Music (RAM), Goldsmiths University and Yamaha Music London.
Jim Aitchison’s Portraits for a Study translates paintings by Richter into musical responses for solo piano and string quartet. The project draws on themes of chance, disturbance, sequences and memory; inspired by Richter’s output.
‘Richter’s paintings have a very clear sense of reticence
and anonymity; there is a tangible sense of distance. It might sound crude, but
I wanted to explore the real graphical distance where the performance is
forcibly separate from the audience,’ explains Aitchison. ‘It will be a
disconcerting experience to see a piano that appears automated – but it won’t
be, as there will be a “live” performer, and the exact nuances of his
performance will be created in the other three spaces, in real time.’
Chadwick will open the performance at AMATA in Falmouth, triggering the three remote Disklavier pianos in London to perform by themselves (via data transfer over broadband), to their respective audiences. Images from Richter’s 2012 Tate Modern show will also be projected.
Richter’s practice of passing the same images through various processes will be evoked further when the same musical responses for piano are passed to the Kreutzer Quartet at the RAM, where Aitchison is an honorary research fellow, and transmitted back to all of the other venues via an audio link.
‘Richter passes the same image through different filters, so I am recomposing the same music for string quartet – it’s not a rearrangement; to convert piano textures into string quartet requires rethinking,’ says Aitchison.
‘Terry Riley did something similar in the eighties with
NASA, but to my knowledge I don’t think that this type of composition has be
written before. Crucially, it is not written for Disklavier, it is written for
the piano, and there will be a legacy for pianists.’
The concert – which takes place on 22 February at 7:30pm –
is supported by Arts Council England, the PRS for Music Foundation and Yamaha
Music Europe GmbH (UK).
Bechstein launches online photo competition
11 November 2013
Berlin-based piano manufacturer Bechstein is offering fans the opportunity to win a new upright or a trip to its workshop in Saxony.
The giveaway is part of the makers’ 160th anniversary celebrations. To be in with a chance of winning, entrants are required to post their favourite piano photographs to the Bechstein Facebook page. The winner will be selected from a shortlist of the ten most popular images.
There are two prize options: either a new W.Hoffmann V 112 upright piano – made by C Bechstein Europe – or a trip to the C. Bechstein headquarters in Berlin and the manufactory in Saxony including concert tickets, a factory tour, hotel accommodation and travel expenses.
The competition closes on 24 January.
Bechstein released its 160th anniversary model earlier this year; a ‘golden grand’ piano that took a team of 90 workers more than 2,500 hours to create. It is finished with 24-karat gold leaf and is a replica of a piano Carl Bechstein created for Queen Victoria in the late 19th century.