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
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.