‘Unexpected dimension’ in piano works

“The Pianist”

Canberra International Music Festival

Fitters’ Workshop, May 10

Reviewed by Clinton White

HOW good it was to be back in the amazing acoustic of the Fitters’ Workshop?

The Fitters’ was the perfect venue choice for this concert, adding an unexpected dimension to the sounds of the piano.

“The Pianist” took us on a journey through compositions from the two world wars. It was a concert of great contrasts from dark, brooding, sinister hints of war-torn Europe, through the saddest of elegies to the brightest of folk dances.

Adam Cook opened the concert with a firm touch in a brash set of six, short Romanian folk dances from Béla Bartók. Cook was certainly up for the challenge, delivering assured if at times rather bombastic playing, setting the scene for what was a thoroughly entertaining program.

Cook’s style lent itself well to another set of folk dances, this time by Hungarian composer Leó Weiner. Technically difficult, Cook once again showed confidence, wowing the audience into sustained applause.

Tamara-Anne Cislowska joined Cook on stage, but at separate pianos for “Concertino for two pianos”, written in 1940 by the Jewish Polish composer and pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. Szpilman survived the holocaust because he was recognised by a Jewish police officer and pulled out of a queue of people boarding a train to an extermination camp. But his father, mother and three siblings all continued on.

I wondered if the lighter, more sensitive touch of Cislowska would be overshadowed by Cook’s firmer hand, but the two were perfectly matched, creating seamless transitions from one piano to the other and giving all the tonal colour and expression the loaded palette demanded.

Cislowska returned at the end of the concert to perform a mazurka, also by Szpilman. It was a light, transparent piece through which Cislowska’s fingers danced deftly along the keyboard.

‘Beautiful’ and ‘comforting’ are apt descriptors for Swedish pianist, Bengt Forsberg’s playing in this concert. First he played a piece full of pensive reflection, by French composer, Albéric Magnard. Its title is a bit schizophrenic and translates to “In God my hope and my sword for my defence”. The second was a selection of three of the seven preludes of Englishman, William Baines.

Calvin Bowman was, I think, the quiet achiever in this concert. He went on stage almost demurely to give Australian premiere performances of great beauty and sensitivity of two works, a Nocturna from 1917 by Portugese composer António Fragoso, who died from influenza at the age of just 21 in 1918 and “Grave et poignant for piano” by Belgium composer André Devaere, who also died young, at just 24 years, from war wounds.

The second of three movements of another piece for two pianos, “Pour bercer un convalescent” (To rock a convalescent), by Venezuelan-born French composer Reynaldo Hahn, featured Timothy Young, in his only performance in this concert, and Daniel de Borah. Like the earlier work for two pianos, these two artists were as one, working closely together, albeit with only subtle communication between them.

It was de Borah who stole the show. He played two solo works. The first, an Australian premiere, was a lament by English composer Frank Bridge, for a 9-year old girl, Catherine, who drowned when a civilian ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915 and sank in the Atlantic Ocean. De Borah teased wonderful nuances from the piano, taking advantage of the ability of the Fitters’ Workshop acoustic to take the softest notes and float them around the room like a wisp of pixie dust.

His pièce de résistance was a truly masterly performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No 7, the second of the three so-called “War Sonatas”, written in 1942. In three movements, this difficult work is full of dissonance, wild chromatic runs, complex chords, the full range of expression and tempi. That he played the work from memory underscores de Borah’s consummate musicianship. De Borah delivered something so special, so musical, as to put us in no doubt that he is an artist of international standard.

[Photos by Peter Hislop]

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