Ian Hobson, piano
SubCulture, New York, NY
November 29, 2017
Esteemed pianist Ian Hobson opened his six-concert series of the complete solo piano works of Debussy and Ravel with his first installment on Wednesday at the edgy SubCulture location in New York’s East Village. Having made his reputation with insightful performances of everything from German standards to neglected Romantic masters to contemporary music written specifically for him, he now reveals another aspect of his curiosity: French so-called “Impressionism.” By the way, can we all stop using this term? Debussy and Ravel despised it, for it was applied as a pejorative, borrowed from the visual arts where it was used the same way.
The recital was a success, if one gauged by audience response to this sometimes diffuse music. I feel that it was more of a mixed success. Mr. Hobson inhabited the general atmospheres of all the works very well, with enormous technical fluency, but there were far too many flaws in the presentation: dropped notes, wrong notes, notes that didn’t sound, dynamics ignored, rhythms distorted (I couldn’t really tell if memory problems were perhaps a factor in some of this), and nearly every tempo too fast. Yikes! I’m going to attempt to temper this harsh verdict by saying that he appeared hamstrung by the piano in SubCulture, an inferior small Steinway that managed to sound completely wooden, almost pitchless at times in the bass, and out-of-tune. Please, SubCulture, when presenting an artist of such stature, doesn’t that warrant a full-size concert grand, especially when sonic splendor is a large part of the esthetic of the period of music being played?
Mr. Hobson began with what for me was a bit of a turn-off: “Ravel’s” Menuet in C-sharp minor (1904). I know this has been recorded recently, in pianists’ desperate search to add uniqueness to their Ravel canon, but just because a work is in a composer’s handwriting does NOT make it a work BY that composer. (As was the case for decades with some of Bach’s sacred cantatas now known to be spurious, he was merely copying out other composers’ works for his own use.) In this instance, the Menuet was found on the reverse of a sheet of exercises by Ravel’s composition student Maurice Delage. I have it on very good authority that either (1) Ravel was taking oral dictation from Delage, thus making the piece by Delage, or (2) that he was making fun of Delage’s maladroitness in the lesson, making it “sort of” Ravel. Ravel was such a fastidious technician, certainly in his master period by 1904, and I’m sure he is turning in his grave over this bad piece, which even a casual listen would demonstrate sounds nothing like Ravel at all. Sorry, Ian!
The entire recital was played without intermission, with only a slight pause between Gaspard and the Debussy Préludes. Mr. Hobson followed with a charming account of Debussy’s first surviving work for piano solo: Danse Bohémienne, which Madame von Meck sent to Tchaikovsky for evaluation. Pyotr Ilich said: “Your little Frenchman is charming, but perhaps the piece is a bit too short,” a pithy, accurate observation. Debussy was already demonstrating his unconcern with “development.”
After that came the two well-known and well-worn Debussy Arabesques, so beloved of adult amateur piano students everywhere. They were given a rough rendering that de-emphasized charm in favor of tempo. Most opportunities (in the score) for moins vite, ritenuto, diminuendo, were either not observed or minimally so.
He then gave us a truly unusual miniature, composed for a music magazine competition, called Morceau de concours (1904). It uses two fragments from one of Debussy’s many abortive opera projects, Le Diable dans le beffroi, based on Poe. This was very well played.
Next up were the Images oubliées, three pieces from 1894, portions of which were re-used in later works. These were first published (1 and 2) in the Piano Quarterly in 1977, and they really should be heard more often. The first is marked Lent (mélancolique et doux), but it sounded impatient in Mr. Hobson’s rendition. The second piece “In the tempo of a Sarabande . . .” (which later became the Sarabande in Pour le piano, with harmonic changes), worked its hypnotic magic and was a highpoint of Hobson’s evening for me. The third piece “Some aspects of Nous n’irons plus au bois” (a children’s song, later used in Jardins sous la pluie) was also played effectively, its rapidity uniting well with Mr. Hobson’s strengths.
Now we come to the first true masterpiece of this program, Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, “three poems for piano (Ravel’s own designation) after Aloysius Bertrand.” Mr. Hobson’s rippling accompaniment figure at the beginning of Ondine, the spiteful mermaid, was gorgeous, giving me high hopes for the rest of the piece, but in the middle of the first page, he played a notorious misprint where the figure appears to change (but is not supposed to!). I suppose he learned it that way, and such things are very difficult to change. His fluidity (in this ultimate water piece) was still gorgeous throughout, though I wish he had breathed more, and left her little “naked” solo without pedal, as indicated. Le Gibet, the story of the body of a hanged man swaying on the gallows in the red light of the setting sun, with bats bumping into it and insects abounding, simply was way too fast. It could not work its mesmerizing spell of dread at such a tempo. If Ravel had been present, he would have had the same falling out with Mr. Hobson that he did with Ricardo Viñes, over the same piece! Scarbo, the imp who tortures the insomniac by scratching at the bedsheets, bursting into flame, then vanishing, suited Mr. Hobson’s impetuousity. You must have that sort of fearlessness to attempt this monster, and he did. I do wish more details had been audible, and softer dynamics (when indicated) had been observed.
Mr. Hobson closed with the second book of Debussy’s Préludes, which still manage to sound really modern despite a lifetime of study and performance. Again, in terms of atmospheres Mr. Hobson nailed them. But there are so many subtleties that went by the wayside. Let me dwell on the best of his: La puerta del Vino (with brusque oppositions of extreme violence and passionate gentleness), Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (rapid and light), “General Lavine”-eccentric (one of Debussy’s send-ups of then in-vogue cakewalk), Ondine (playful, less menacing than Ravel’s for sure), Les tierces alternées (really Debussy’s “thirteenth etude”), and Feux d’artifice (with its concluding broken, faraway evocation of La Marseillaise). Hey, that’s a pretty good average, six out of the twelve. What I missed in the others was the same as previously mentioned: whenever the music said Lent, it wasn’t, he seemed in a hurry to get through the material.
Of course, presenting the complete (and complex!) works of these two is a huge project: I hope Mr. Hobson will find the time to breathe more and enjoy the beautiful sounds he is capable of making, and transport his appreciative audiences even farther into the French soul.