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.
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.
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.
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.
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