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S & H Recital Review

Messiaen, Stockhausen, Boulez Peter O’Hagan (piano). Purcell Room, Friday, October 3rd, 2003 (CC)


Programmes such as this, featuring hard-hitting modernism from the mid-twentieth century, seem to be a real rarity these days. Double the pleasure, then that Peter O’Hagan’s confident pianist was in such glittering form.

O’Hagan is Reader in Music at the University of Surrey at Roehampton. Over the years he has presented all three Boulez Piano Sonatas at the South Bank. It seemed obvious from his playing that he is immersed in this style of music, for he looked and sounded completely at home.

Messiaen’s seminal Quatre études de rhythme (1949) exhibited many of O’Hagan’s strengths. The opening of Île de feu I was explosive, yet the pianist had taken the pains to examine his acoustic and not over-power it. The sudden appearance of octaves was effective, but there was the feeling that possibly the piece could ‘dance’ more. Both Île de feu pieces are dedicated to the people of Papua, New Guinea and perhaps something more of the rhythm of the dance should come across in the music. O’Hagan’s slightly objective approach suited the angular and disjunct Mode de valeurs et d’intensités better, contrasting well with the almost Debussian sensuality of Neumes rhythmiques, where O’Hagan commendably resisted all temptation to ‘bang’. The close, with the simultaneous juxtaposition of registral extremes, was perfectly judged. Finally, Île de feu II evoked a virtuoso sense of abandon.

To play Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X (1960) from memory is no mean feat. One of the things that appeals to the present writer about Stockhausen’s music is the composer’s refusal to compromise (or, put another way, his unshakeable faith in his own creative impulse). O’Hagan radiated belief in this twenty-minute piece, despatching forearm clusters and washes of glissandi with elan. O’Hagan made the connection between the gestures of this piece and Stockhausen’s electronic works very audible indeed. Setting up a tension between harsh clusters, beautiful sonorities and silence itself, the strange dichotomy that while the electronic references were clear, the piece remains entirely pianistic, was excellently projected. The actual musical material Stockhausen calls upon is very varied in this piece (sometimes even sounding like Gershwin!), and it was good that O’Hagan also remained alive to the more playful sections.

It was a good idea to preface Stockhausen and Boulez with the music of their mentor, Messiaen. The ‘preface’ to the Boulez second Piano Sonata was the impossibly sensual ‘Le baiser de l’Enfant Jésus’ from the Vingt Régards. It was perhaps curious that the opening was so matter-of-fact, letting the harmonies speak for themselves. This was indicative of a performance that seemed to gloss over the more spiritual side of the score. Where there should have been more a feeling of slow, organic and inevitable growth, there was more of a walk through the score. The filigree was impressive (quite a glassy touch, almost improvised), but the climactic ecstasy was absent.

Finally, Boulez’ magisterial half-hour Second Sonata received a powerful performance. The opening is pure Boulez: acidic, concentrated and vital. The programme notes made reference to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, and it is certainly true that the trills were glowing with an energy all their own. However, O’Hagan found lyricism even here. Parts of the Lent were given almost Romantically, even tenderly. Here the monumentalism missing in the Messiaen Baiser found itself a home. The shards of sound of the third movement contrasted perfectly with the almost Bachian purity of the finale. Intensity ran through this account: the music is astonishingly difficult, and O’Hagan played with great aplomb, adding crystalline delicacy to the mix along the way.

How nice to have a real challenge as a listener. This is not easy music, but it is infinitely rewarding. It was good to have a reminder of the stature of these works.

Colin Clarke



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