Bartok; Deane; Chopin; Liszt: Sonata in B minor, Op. 31

Hugh Tinney

The National Concert Hall 4 stars

Hugh TinneyHugh Tinney's European Piano Masterworks series continued at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Wednesday evening.  Whereas last month's concert was based around Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, this month's concert was based around Liszt's B Minor Sonata.

The concert began with Bartok, the Suite Opus 14. In this work from 1916, though the influence of folk music on Bartok's compositional pen is on display, no existing folk tunes are used, the work's themes being instead the coinage of Bartok's imagination. In aiming for a style that would be distinct from that of the late romantic piano repertoire, Bartok here adopted a more rhythmically-based and percussive approach, doing away with such extravagances as broken chords; although the break is not really that radical.

Both Tinney and audience were in comfortable territory. This is not especially 'difficult' Bartok: the sonorities are clear and the harmonies zesty, and Tinney's playing was carefully considered enough for any rough angles to have been shaved off. Having said that, there was enough vim in the first couple of movements to make sure the audience was awake.

The rationale behind programming this piece at the opening of the concert was doubtless the bookending of one Hungarian's music at the end of the programme with another's at the beginning. But though Bartok was nice, Ligeti would have been nicer.

This wish might seem silly, but it touches on an important feature of the programming. To look on the faces of the audience here was to look on faces from an over-50s catalogue; and though there's nothing wrong with that in itself, one couldn't help thinking the lack of integration of young compositions in the programme corresponded to a lack of integration of youthful faces in the audience.

Which isn't to say contemporary music was absent. As with last month's concert, two extracts were performed from Noctuary by Irish composer Raymond Deane. Deane is a strong composer and the two pieces here achieved a powerful update on the nocturne; the first a miasmic drift, the second a fluttering of light points recalling Van Gogh's Starry Night, both set in atonal language.

Next month's concert is as recent as the programming reaches, being based around Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. And though it will feature Tristan Murail's La Mandragore as a supporting act, would it really be too subversive to have a Masterworks concert based around an extensive work by a living composer – Murail's Territoires de l’oubli, say, or Boulez's Second Piano Sonata?

With four pieces by Chopin the concert took off. Tinney's Chopin was concentrated and deeply felt without ever spilling over into unwelcome melodrama. His clear-headed, occasionally clipped articulation fared well in the initial Nocturne in D flat major, Opus 27 No. 2, a favourite among Chopin's works.

The Mazurka in B was a little stiff, but worked within the context of the four piece suite as a whole. It was followed by the Mazurka in A minor, whose beautiful plaint remains unaged since its original composition, and which was the best of the four Chopin pieces performed. Taking us to the interval was the Scherzo in B flat minor, dispatched with panache and lucidity of phrase.

There is an avuncular character to Tinney's stage manner that entirely fits this repertoire: familiar and comforting tunes, tunes you can sit back to and dream. In line with this is the uncertain status of the piano recital as event: something midway between public and private sphere, and between society and familial gathering. Part of the function of such recitals is to open up questions of these nature; and similarly one had a multiple and mutable perspective of the presence onstage: moving from a spritely and sure pair of hands to a meek figure handing dead music to a dying audience.

With his bicentenary occurring this year, there is more Liszt in the air than usual. Still, an opportunity to hear a performance of the B minor Sonata by a musician of Tinney's standard is not to be missed.

Despite the forbidding length, this piece never felt overlong or turgid. Instead, we had a meditative B minor Sonata, a calm plumbing of the depths that in the end threw up many smaller works couched inside the greater one. Though that isn't to say one's sense of the overall form was ever wanting, as it wasn't: perfect momentum obtained the whole way through, and one’s attention never waned. A particular thrill came with the composed ebullience of the fugato section.

The odd extravagance of Liszt's great piano essay always kept on the right side of tastefulness, even suggesting at times the similar extravagance of that latter-day denizen of Vienna, Thomas Bernhard; a suggestion probably also given weight by the overlong, break-less (read paragraph-less) run of its duration, as well as the knowing humour and restraint with which the declamatory voice was dispatched by Tinney.

By Liam Cagney

Photo: Colm Hogan