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Schubert, Janacek, Faure and Debussy: Charles Owen (piano) Wigmore Hall, London, 3.4.2008 (BBr)

Franz Schubert: 16 German Dances D783 (1823/1824)
Leoš Jánaček: In the Mists (1911/1912)
Gabriel Fauré: Nocturne No.2 in B, op.33/2 (c1881)
Nocturne No.4 in Eb, op.36 (1884)
Nocturne No.7 in C sharp minor, op.74 (1898)
Nocturne No.13 in B minor, op.119 (1921)
Claude Debussy: Préludes: Book 2 (1911/1913)

The Schubert Dances created an happy start to a show which was, in general, very serious. Schubert’s Dances were well received by the public during his lifetime, unlike so much of his work, and he wrote hundreds of them. Well I like them too, and so does Charles Owen and it was an inspired move on his part to programme them tonight. He did nothing with them except play them and that made them all the better for they are not big blooms, more wayside flowers. They do not need interpretation, just a sensitive player who will let them be what they are.

Once he’d lulled us into a secure feeling he launched into J
ánaček’s In the Mists. Like so much of this composers’ works the music is elusive, hopping restlessly from one idea to another, creating an uneasy feeling in the listener. But the music is never obscure, the composer knows exactly what he is doing even if we cannot quite catch up with his myriad thoughts – but isn’t this always the way with Jánaček? Music just seems to pour out of him and his intuitive method of composition worked perfectly for him, even if it makes us work harder when listening. Owen played them with a clarity which was miraculous, making each strand speak clearly and allowing us to follow Jánaček’s argument with ease.

é’s Nocturnes cover his whole career from charming to epic. The final work is positively Lisztian in its force and intent. In her programme note Jessica Duchen suggests that this work, written shortly after the death of his friend, teacher and mentor, Saint-Saëns, might be a crie de coeur, for either Saint-Saëns or perhaps, even, himself, staring his own death in the face. Whatever Fauré’s intention he wrote music of such passionate virtuosity that, in Owen’s hands, we heard a new Fauré, one who was not resigned to his fate, but who was still fighting for what he believed in: life itself.

In the 2nd half we were treated to the Second Book of Debussy’s Préludes, and I use the word treated because it seemed to me as if Owen were playing especially for me, so much did he draw me into his musical world. Although commenced shortly after the completion of the First Book, Debussy didn’t complete this Second Book until 1913, by which time Khamma (completed with the help of Charles Koechlin) and Jeux were available, and his music had become even more elusive than ever – this manner only to be dropped with the coming of war and the miraculous outpouring of the final Sonatas. Therefore, due to the time taken in composition, this set contrasts the very impressionistic – Brouillards, Feuilles mortes and Ondine - with the more public - Général Levine – eccentric, Hommage
à S Pickwick Esq PPMPC and Les tierces alternées. Also, because of the many different moods, colours and emotions employed, it’s the more difficult set of the two to bring off successfully.

It was in
Fauré’s 13th Nocturne that I suddenly realised just how wide a dynamic range Owen was utilizing. In the Debussy, Owen gave his all, from delicate, poetical, intimate whispers of sound to the most forthright and powerful exhibition. His strong left hand underpinned everything, and he built the performance to the final fireworks of Feux d’artifice where the six octave double glissando seemed earth shattering in its intensity, making the final eleven bars, with its distant, almost ghostly,  reminiscence of La Marseilleise all the more poignant.

There was no one special moment for every moment was special in this recital. Sitting at the piano, looking straight ahead, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, seeing the music in his mind’s eye as he played, eschewing all signs of overt show and display, Owen gave us the music pure and simple, appearing astonished, at the close of a work, to discover us sitting there listening to his playing. And that was what this recital was all about: close and private communion with the music.

This recital was recorded and I can hardly wait to hear he 13th Nocturne and Feux d’artifice again. Owen is an intelligent and insightful player with a technique to allow him to essay even the most difficult of music and present it clearly to us; there are insufficient superlatives to praise him.

Bob Briggs

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