Pianist Ian Hobson Plays a Robust, Smartly Thematic Program at Merkin Concert Hall

by delarue

How’s this for meta? The theme of pianist Ian Hobson‘s ambitious monthly series of concerts is…themes. And variations on those themes. With this series, he’s been pushing himself as hard as any other pianist out there right now. There’s no better example than next month’s April 13, 7’30 PM program at Merkin Concert Hall, where he’s going to open with a Faure theme and variations, then Schumann’s almost sadistically difficult Symphonic Etudes and then Rachmaninoff preludes, whose iconically harrowing beauty requires similarly daunting technique. If Wednesday’s program there was any indication, Hobson is up to the challenge. Tix are $20/$12.50 stud/srs.

Last night’s concert there found Hobson opening with a student work of sorts by Chopin, the Variations on Der Schweitzer Bub. It doesn’t sound much like Chopin. Rather, it draws a line straight back to Beethoven – contented, ebullient, carbonated post-soiree Beethoven, like, say, the Leonore Overture. How did Hobson handle it? As the flashy proto chamber pop that it is, but also as a study in contrasts, an approach that would work like a charm throughout the rest of the program.

Then he raised the bar with Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Those familiar with the piece are probably used to choppy, severe Soviet interpretations. Hobson’s was 180 degrees the opposite: lyrical, conversational, and revealing. Rachmaninoff pairs achingly searching righthand melodies against coldly brusque, fatalistic, even macabre lefthand riffs so often that it’s almost a shtick. Hobson worked that dynamic as a dialogue rather than grand guignol. His approach to the tempo and overall pacing was just as minutely attuned, with a legato so liquid that he seemed to be meeting the keys at the millisecond they bounced up, rather than crunching down on anything before its time had come. Not a lot of pianists play so convivially: Nancy Garniez is one. There could be an influence here.

Next on the bill was the world premiere of a series of Yehudi Wyner preludes, completed just a month ago. How heartwarming to see that the now-octogenarian Wyner is absolutely undiminished, and what a fantastic segue they made wih the suite of Debussy etudes that followed. Dynamics were once again front and center as Hobson switched elegantly between gnomic Kurtag-esque minimalism, Debussy gamelanisms and otherworldly, echoing bell tones that brought to mind Frederic Mompou.

Much as piano etudes tend to be perceived as simplistic and less than desirable for public performance, they actually tend to be very difficult. The program notes quoted Debussy doing his best to put Carl Czerny (patron saint of boring practice pieces) in his place by writing a series of rigorous numbers that brought some actual fun to the struggle of mastering complex late Romantic repertoire. Much as there was plenty of repetition, deliberate emphasis on crosshand technique, tendon-tormenting octatves and such, there was no step down from Debussy at his usual self. Hobson made the bells chime, the cascades gleam, and uneasy, enigmatic journeys into as much cherry resolution as this composer ever possibly alllows. That, and the frequent droll flourish that drew chuckles from an impressive crowd for a crisp early spring night.

And if all this wasn’t enough of a workout, Hobson – who’d broken into a sweat by then – encored with a robust take of Ondine, from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. The concert had come full circle: in order to play this even more uneasy, challenging showstopper, you might need a few of the practice pieces Hobson had built full steam with.