Elemental [London premiere]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Johann Sebastian Bach, Op.81
Piano Sonata No.29 in B flat, Op.106 (Hammerklavier)
Jonathan Powell (piano)
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 8 May, 2015
Venue: Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, North London
Morgan Hayes’s Elemental (2014-15) was introduced as a three-section extract from a 25-minute cycle of pieces. The related sectors are, in effect, exercises in promoting a theme. The first is spare as announced, without harmony or counterpoint. The second repeats the theme, but with added emphasis, akin to an abrasive moment of punctuation. The third has emphasis too, but is louder, thicker in texture and more extended. The whole is spare, serious and angular, reminiscent of Kurtág or Ligeti and with a terse brevity recalling Webern. I enjoyed this piece. Jonathan Powell’s playing was steely, clear and controlled.
In Max Reger’s 1904 take on J. S. Bach, contemporary with Busoni. Powell treated it as an essay in compelling the Steinway to reproduce the grandeur and swell of an imposing Victorian organ. The fourteen variations were uniform, rather than diverse, relentlessly growing louder and louder. In Powell’s hands – too direct and emphatic to allow for nuance – the whole affair became rather monotonous. To make matters worse, the ever-more intense sound was accompanied by increasing use of what used to be called, misleadingly, the ‘loud’ pedal, resulting in an intrusive fuzziness of tone, rendering the music noisy, unclear and shapeless. I must add that the audience applauded the performance rapturously
Powell announced a short interval but failed to say for how long. He hurtled into the ‘Hammerklavier’ and left some supporters stranded. Nevertheless he impressed here. This Beethoven had vigour. Powell produced an energetic momentum almost throughout. Some of the playing was heavy-handed, though, especially those great repeated chords in the left-hand during highly-charged moments of the sublime Adagio – a nuanced affair, its delicacy of tone and responsiveness requires skilful changes of mood, volume and tension. It was a relief to hear a sensitive, quiet sostenuto played with minimal use of the sustaining pedal. Equally, there was less pedalling in the opening movement and the Scherzo and, mercifully, also in the exhilarating propulsion of the immense culminating fugue.