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REVIEW: The Ian Hobson Brahms Series in New York

10 December 2013

Ian Hobson
‘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.

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