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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Concert Review: The Pointillist Procedure

Pianist Ian Hobson continues his Debussy and Ravel series at SubCulture.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist Ian Hobson is giving a six recital series at SubCulture this season.
Photo from the artist's website, courtesy Hemsing Associates.
The pianist and academic Ian Hobson may not be as well known as the flashy virtuosos who pack the schedule of major concert venues. However, sometimes the best recitals are those that are on a more intimate scale. On Wednesday night, Mr. Hobson, a veteran soloist and conductor and recording artist who also teaches music at Florida State came back to New York for the third of six recitals this season at SubCulture. Tucked downstairs on Bleecker Street, this funky downtown performance space is currently in a struggle to reclaim its spot at the front of the cutting edge of Gotham performance venues.

The program offered is part of a series in which Mr. Hobson is journeying through the complete piano repertories of both Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. It is a smart idea to combine these men, who are arguably the two most important pianists in the early 20th century Impressionist movement. However, most soloists elect to play one or two of their works on a program, or cherry pick their shorter pieces for encores. Mr. Hobson takes a bold all-encompassing approach:  by treating these two composers as one entity, he  allows the listener the welcome opportunity to compare and contrast their styles. This is all to the good.

The concert began with a pair of works, one by each composer, that were written in 1909 to commemorate the centenary of the death of Franz Joseph Haydn. Each piece, a Menuet by Ravel and a waltz by Debussy, use a musical encryption of the composer's last name as their starting point, a technique that in some ways looks forward to the mathematical rigor of serialism that would dominate much of 20th century art music. However, under Mr. Hobson's fingers, each work proved to be much more than trifles in code: the Ravel moved nimbly while the Debussy work stretched and luxuriated in its flow of sound.

Ravel's Jeux d'eau followed, its delicate introduction invoking the dancing waters of a fountain much in the manner of Franz Liszt. However, the delicate pentatonic harmonies are unmistakably Ravel, as well as the right hand trills that dominate the later sections of the piece. It was expertly contrasted with Reverie, an early Debussy creation that shows this composer in his nascent phase, moving slowly away from Romanticism and towards a unique "French" style that would prove enormously influential on the century that followed.

Mr. Hobson then addressed the three larger sets of pieces that concluded the program. The first of these was Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales, eight dances that contain some of the composer's most forward-looking ideas, hidden behind the mask of a deliberately archaic set of forms. Mr. Hobson played these with concentration and forward momentum, shifting between slow and fast tempos and blurring the lines where each piece started and ended so the enthusiastic concertgoers would not interrupt with applause.

The three pieces from the first book of Debussy's Images were next. Reflets dans l'eau moved with supple and liquid grace. However, Mr. Hobson seemed to let the subtleties of Hommage à Rameau escape his notice. Mouvement was better, and the wit of the writing and the tolling Dies irae laced into the harmonics proved agreeable, even if the playing here was more precise than passionate.

That passion returned in the closing set: the Suite Bergamesque. Again, these four movements flowed as one, with Mr. Hobson barely taking a pause before launching into each of the tunes. The third of these, Claire de lune has acquired a life of its own in popular culture thanks to its over-appearance in motion pictures, but at least the audience knew enough to let the artist play it and the following Passepied before bursting into warm applause. 

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