Daniel Becker

Piano Sonata No.4, Op.92 (like a well… older than God)
Préludes – Books I and II [Selections]
Poetic Conceits [World premiere]
Four Preludes [World premiere]
Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus [Selections]
Piano Sonata No.2 [UK premiere]

Daniel Becker (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 March, 2006
Venue: Purcell Room, London

Britain has done well in recent years for pianists who focus on (without necessarily specialising) in twentieth-century and contemporary music – and on the basis of this recital, part of the South Bank Centre’s “Fresh” series, Daniel Becker looks set to join them. His programme combined French classics with recent music by English and French composers: at least, Romanian-born Horatiu Radulescu has been a French citizen for over 30 years, and his music forms very much a part of the ‘spectral’ thinking prevalent in French music during the 1970s and 1980s. That said, his Fourth Sonata (1993) fairly evokes apocalyptic imagery, and deals with textural and dynamic extremes, in a way redolent of the Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya – its four brief but often explosive movements skirting the brink of a conceptual and musical abyss.

Becker was wholly attuned to its daunting requirements (of stamina as much as, if not more than, technique), without losing composure to do justice to the Debussy Préludes that followed. If ‘La danse de Puck’ was deft rather than capricious and ‘Ondine’ more diverting than ominous, the scene-scape of ‘Bruyères’ was poetically realised and the otherworldliness of ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’ suffused with the right detachment.

His selection from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards (why do so few pianists these days make similar selections?) showed him to be as at home in the very different world of this later French master – the scrupulous attention to dynamics in ‘Regard des prophètes, des bergers et des Mages’ matched by the emotional breadth of his response to ‘Première communion de la Vierge’, before the sheer exultation of ‘Regard des Anges’ came through with uninhibited verve.

The remainder of the programme consisted of both new and recent pieces. The Four Preludes (2005) heard here are a taster for the 24 that Edward Cowie has now completed. A composer who enjoys a parallel career as a painter, Cowie transmutes his visual impressions directly into sound, but these pieces – inspired respectively by Cancleve (Cornwall), River Dronne (France), Ularu (Australia) and Crackington Haven (Cornwall) – are not overly distinctive either in themselves or as a group, making one wonder just how well the 80-minute sequence will cohere in terms of long-range tonal processes.

In the Second Sonata (2001) by Eric Tanguy, Becker’s fluency in modally-inflected writing brought an abundant élan to the ‘Danse’ and ‘Molto legato’ movements and an ethereal calm to the central ‘Hypnotique’ – all three building on the precedents of Jolivet and early Dutilleux in no uncertain terms.

Yet it was Kenneth Hesketh’s Poetic Conceits (2005) that otherwise stole the show. Without having sacrificed the finesse that made his early ensemble pieces so alluring, Hesketh here distils a keen motivic continuity that is audibly sustained over the five movements. The limpid yet restive motion of ‘Cold Pastoral’ and the brittle gestures of ‘Epigraph’ follow the stark writing of ‘Epigram’, then the freewheeling interplay of ‘Mad Pursuits’ is capped by the technical and expressive synthesis that is ‘Epitaph’. An individual, intriguing and successful way to effect a large-scale structure – with piano-writing that consistently holds the attention, yet without drawing attention to itself as such.

Something that so assured yet undemonstrative a virtuoso as Daniel Becker clearly appreciated, and which was much in evidence throughout the evening. No shortage of fine younger British pianists there may be, but Becker is impressively of their number, and his future appearances are much to be anticipated.

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