Works by Haydn, Deane, Mozart, and Beethoven

Hugh Tinney

The National Concert Hall 4 stars

Hugh TinneyOn Wednesday evening Irish pianist Hugh Tinney launched the European Piano Masterworks series at the National Concert Hall.

This series, running once a month until the end of April, sees Tinney presenting some of the great works from the piano repertoire from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, great works from the pens of the great composers, works which invite reflection on the part of the audience on the influence of this great instrument, the piano, on the course and character of western music history up to the present day. Future concerts see programmes based around Lizst's B minor Sonata and Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit; tonight the focus was on Beethoven's immense Hammerklavier Sonata.

Over the past twenty years Tinney has had a strong impact on Irish musical life. Born in Dublin in 1958, he launched his career by winning a couple of first prizes in international piano competitions. He has subsequently played across the world, most frequently on the island immediately proximate, with most of the major British orchestras.

This series of concerts is being held in the Concert Hall's main auditorium. Though the piano's dimensions in relation to those of the hall are diminutive, this ostensible physical disproportion is balked by the piano's expansion in the great works being presented to consume the space provided. As Tinney puts it in his programme note, 'Most of the great composers of Europe from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century were at the very least adept (and sometimes extraordinary) pianists, and their major output for orchestra was paralleled by a major output for piano.'

A partition blocked upstage leaving downstage exposed, a gold vase holding red tulips and yellow sunflowers the only prop. Tinney came on briskly for the opening work, Haydn's Andante Variations in F minor, Hob XVII/6. After 30 seconds he broke off, unhappy with a vibration emanating from the piano lid, and after getting up and adjusting the lid to his satisfaction, and suitable audience murmurs, he restarted. His touch was a little stilted after this, taking a couple of minutes to hit its stride.

Haydn dedicated this melancholy piece to 'Signore de Ployer', the daughter of a high-ranking Viennese official and a lady for whom Mozart wrote two of his Piano Concertos. It is commonly believed that it was written to the memory of Marianne von Genzinger, the wife of the doctor of Prince Nicolas of Esterhaza, and a woman with whom Haydn was supposed to have been in love. Tinney's playing was even and unobtrusive.

Two pieces from Noctuary, by contemporary composer Raymond Deane, came next. The contrast couldn't have been more jolting nor the title more fit, harsh atonality rendering the hall cavernous and dark. Deane is one of Ireland's most interesting composers, a former student of Stockhausen and current member of Ireland's state-subsidised artists group Aosdana. As its title suggests, Noctuary is a contemporary engagement with the nocturne, here laid out in Varèse-esque sound blocks spread across the entirety of the piano's range.

Preceding the interval was Mozart's Sonata in A minor K310. This is a piece from Mozart's early maturity, composed on the trip to Paris in 1778 that claimed the life of his mother. Feather-light, it never really came to life here; perhaps because of what was waiting in the wings, the night's heavyweight, Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat Op. 106, or to give it its more famous name, the Hammerklavier Sonata.

When heard by listeners of the day this piece must have seemed baffling, its unprecedentedly gargantuan dimensions suggesting a distended and malshapen condition for Beethoven's mind, shut away as it was in an all-enveloping cloud of deafness, ineluctably isolated from the world of right thinking and rational proportion. Presented here, like a symphony, with an entire hall to fill, helpfully contextualised by the preceding works of Haydn and Mozart, the Sonata's size made perfect sense – a work that broaches no comparison.

Tinney leapt into the Allegro's fanfare with the vigour of Beowulf leaping into battle with the monster. Playing here as elsewhere without a score, Tinney put in a glimmering, no-nonsense reading of this first movement. It took a while for any fireworks, but a spark began to show late in the movement with Tinney stamping his feet and giving vent to an apposite Beethovenian unkemptness in his playing. The brief scherzo was polyvalent in its voicings of the cute rising-third motif. Tinney was strongest in the Adagio Sostenuto, playing with languor and stateliness. A crack appeared with the final movement, however, the famous three-part fugue, which didn't reach the ear as clearly as it should have, withstanding the efforts of its pursuer.

By Liam Cagney

Photo: Colm Hogan