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David Stanhope (piano): A virtuoso recital
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Toccata Op. 7 [4.59]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924) Ballade Op. 19 [13.41]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Preludes Op. 32 [38.05]
Franz LISZT (1811-1887) Wedding March and Elves Dance from Midsummer Night’s Dream [9.16]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) arr. David STANHOPE The Tryst [3.07]
David Stanhope (piano)
rec. 21-22 July 2004, Studio, Sydney Opera House.
TALL POPPIES TP184 [69.40]

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David Stanhope is something of a polymath. A leading conductor in Australia his credits include the Australian stage premiere of Berg’s Lulu, he has a nice sideline in conducting soundtracks for feature films such as Babe. He has a background as an orchestral player having been both a principal horn-player and a bass trombonist. He is making a name for himself as a composer. So it might come as something of a surprise to find him recording a disc of virtuoso piano music, especially as this is his third such disc for Australian label Tall Poppies.

Previous discs have included Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven Symphonies, Busoni and Grainger. On this disc he gives us a recital of pieces he describes as some of his favourite pieces.

Virtuoso piano music rather falls into three categories. There is the ‘look at me aren’t I clever’ sort (think Liszt’s operatic paraphrases) where display is of the essence. Then there are the pieces where the pianist’s struggle with the piano is almost part of the piece. And finally those where the player must transcend the difficulties and often hide them from us to reveal the music beneath.

This recital is mainly composed of pieces from the third category. Schumann, Rachmaninov and Fauré were all distinguished composer-pianists. Unlike Liszt, their piano writing was not designed to show off their technique, so a player must be able to absorb the pianistic difficulties, use the notes to create real music and get beyond just playing the notes.

Stanhope is undoubtedly a fine player and his playing on all the items in this recital is creditable, musical and not a little exciting. The performance of the Schumann Toccata seems merely hectic, it neither approaches that demonic energy that Richter could bring to it - admittedly at a slower pace - nor does it subsume the pianistic difficulties into a more poetic world.

Bringing out the innate poetry of a piece is something that needs doing in many of Fauré’s more complex works. It is all too easy to get involved in the rippling piano texture and forget the longer singing lines. It must be admitted that Stanhope’s textures are lovely and fluid and in the quieter sections he has a lovely feel for the poetry. But in the more complex passages I missed a sense of a singing line over-arching the busy piano texture.

The centre-piece of the recital is Rachmaninov’s Op.32 Preludes. Rachmaninov wrote this, his first set of Preludes in 1901 at a time when he was writing the Variations on a Theme of Chopin. The Chopin theme came from one of Chopin’s Op. 28 Preludes. The thirteen preludes in the Op.32 set were written in 1910 at the time of the Third Piano Concerto and the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Rachmaninov intended that the Opp. 32 and 23 preludes, together with the Prelude in C sharp minor, written when he was 19, would make a complete set of 24 preludes. They cover every tonality and so could be played as a complete set, though he never played them as such in public.

The Op.32 preludes are very varied in style and make a good organic whole. Stanhope neatly captures the varied nature of the pieces but I must confess that I found his playing a little too even tempered. Capable and satisfying though his playing might be, I wanted something more. In the slower, quieter pieces he could have been more quixotic and the stronger pieces lacked the ultimate in passion; perhaps, in the end, what I missed was a sense of the dark Russian soul underlying the piece. Something that I think Howard Shelley captures well on his recording for Hyperion. This can be a problem in much of Rachmaninov’s music: it is too easy to take the surface brilliance and melodic charm and forget the underlying Russian depths that the music can bring up.

Stanhope’s performance will undoubtedly please some and, embedded as it is in an intriguing recital, it will prove attractive. But it is not a performance for my library shelves.

Stanhope completes his recital with a couple of showier pieces. First of all Liszt’s amusing take on Mendelssohn’s music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. First of all Liszt hilariously plays with variants of the Wedding March and then at the end brilliantly combines elements from both the Wedding March and the Fairies music. This is show-off music par excellence and Stanhope shows off quite brilliantly.

Finally Stanhope gives us one of his own transcriptions, of Sibelius’s song ‘The Tryst’. He manages brilliantly, walking a tight-rope between showing off and taking the song seriously.

A well planned recital then, one that is well executed with some dazzling playing. But if you’ve already got a satisfying version of the Rachmaninov Preludes, don’t go rushing out to buy this disc especially for them.

Robert Hugill


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