John Frayne: Piano concerts offer educational delight

Last week, the University of Illinois Summer Piano Institute offered advanced classes in piano performance — plus a series of events open to the public, and free, including afternoon master classes and evening piano recitals.

I attended two of the latter.

On Aug. 1 in Smith Recital Hall, Ian Hobson gave a recital of German and French piano music. After Hobson's marathon of the complete solo and chamber music with piano of Johannes Brahms, it was no surprise that this recital included three Brahms items.

Hobson opened with the solemn and somber "Theme and Variations in D Minor," which is the piano version of the slow movement of Brahms' "String Sextet No. 1" Op. 18. But the major work on the first half of the program was the grandiose "Sonata in F minor," Op. 5, the third and last of Brahms' piano sonatas.

Hobson gave an energetic and dramatic interpretation of this large-scale work. The massive opening movement was prophetic in its ambitious structure and complexity of textures. This young Brahms was indeed destined to write great symphonies.

During the second half of the concert, Hobson gave sensitive and technically impressive readings of works by Frederic Chopin and Maurice Ravel, and Hobson was especially brilliant in Ravel's formidably challenging "Scarbo," the last movement of "Gaspard de la Nuit."

The concert ended with Brahms' exciting piano version of the Scherzo movement of Robert Schumann's "Piano Quartet," Op. 44, a piece that had not been played in Hobson's Brahms piano series.

The concert Aug. 2 offered a novel and intriguing experience. UI faculty pianist Timothy Ehlen joined Hobson in performing piano concertos, not with orchestral accompaniment, but with a piano reduction of the orchestral parts — played at this concert by Samir Golescu, a graduate of the UI School of Music, who played with Hobson in the Brahms series during this past season.

I had never heard this setup before, but Ehlen told me that it is a common occurrence in the musical world at practice and audition sessions.

With two pianos playing like this, the contrast between solo and ensemble parts is paradoxically put in high relief. Hearing the orchestral parts on a solo piano reduces that music to the same sonic plane as the solo piano part, for comparison purposes.

Also, this situation exaggerates the lengths of time in which the solo pianist is marking time, and it also stresses the passages in which the piano and orchestra alternately play basically the same music.

Of course, the solo "orchestral" piano cannot imitate the variety of sounds produced by the orchestral instruments. At climaxes, especially at the end of movements, the two grand pianos can produce an impressively mighty sound.

Ehlen played the solo part in Ludwig van Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 4," which many think his finest concerto. Ehlen has a special gift of making musical phrases seem fresh and original, and his playing is both sensitive to fine nuances as well as capable of commanding the grandest of musical gestures.

In Ehlen's reading, the enormous vitality of Beethoven's musical imagination stood out in all it glory. Enthusiastic applause followed the end of the Beethoven Concerto.

Let me say here that Ehlen is now issuing a CD set of Beethoven's piano sonatas on the Azica label. Golescu, at the other piano, gave Ehlen firm and dynamically appropriate support throughout.

Hobson chose to play Brahms' "Piano Concerto No. 1," a work that, oddly enough, began life as a "Sonata for Two Pianos." Hobson and Golescu's task in conveying the massive grandeur of the Brahms concerto was more difficult than Ehlen/Golescu's task. Both Brahms piano concertos have been described as "symphonies with piano obbligatos."

Golescu had the role of conveying the tempestuous opening of the first movement, as Hobson waited for his quiet entrance after the musical storm abated. But Hobson had plenty to do in the intricate and dramatic solo piano part during the rest of the concerto. The alternate shaping of phrases by Hobson and Golescu was especially affecting during the slow movement.

In the finale, Brahms "lightened up" and Hobson and Golescu reveled in the back and forth volleys of Brahms' music phrases. The final crushing fortissimos of both grand pianos brought strong applause during which most in the audience stood.

After the concert, Hobson told me that his projected series of 14 Brahms piano concerts at Benzaquen Hall and Cary Hall at DiMenna Center in New York will begin Sept. 10. Golescu is one of the collaborating artists.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@ illinois.edu.

Topics (1):Music

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