Performing at one of Europe's leading recital venues may be a daunting task for any musician, but young Irish pianist Michael McHale showed no signs of nerves in his impressive Wigmore Hall début. Having won prizes at the Terence Judd/Hallé Awards in 2009 and the AXA Dublin International Competition in 2006, McHale has been making his presence felt on the international stage as both soloist and chamber musician, with concerts across Europe and frequently performing with Sir James Galway.
Although the programme here mostly focused on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century stalwarts of the piano repertoire of Liszt, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff, McHale demonstrated an equal affinity for the Classical repertoire. Opening with Mozart's Piano Sonata in B flat, K333, McHale showed off a bright clear cantabile tone, highlighting the youthful effervescence of the concertante elements of the first movement with firm dexterity. The central movement was subtly nuanced, before a sparkling final Allegretto.
This was followed by two short works written by fellow Belfastian Ian Wilson; an early work, the simple and atmospheric For Eileen, After rain, was complimented by the newly commissioned Sonnewende. Whilst the livelier nature of the latter demanded a little more technical flair, comfortably met by McHale, it was difficult not to feel that both the talents of the performer as well as the potential of the instrument were unexplored by Wilson. Similarly, the initially promising E flat–C-E motif on which the work was based, letters taken from the English translation of the title, Solstice, ultimately failed to provide any sense of overall cohesion.
Whilst Liszt's Ballade no. 2 in B minor does not occupy the exalted position as Liszt's other B minor work composed in the same year, the Piano Sonata S. 178, it bears all the hallmarks of the composer’s extraordinary style, demanding absolute precision of technique matched by a rich variety of tone colour. Michael McHale rose to the challenge of both. Although the menacing rumbles of the left-hand opening of the Ballade can threaten to overwhelm, McHale maintained just enough balance, deftly contrasting the passionate storms of the narrative with the refined tender tone of the major-key passages in this powerful portrayal.
After the interval, this passion, although still evident, was somehow more focused, and the performance more still, more intimate and ultimately more rewarding. Written in the decade after the Third Piano Concerto, Rachmaninoff's Études-Tableaux Op. 39 crystallise his fiercely emotional virtuosity in miniature form. The changes of tempo were well controlled by McHale in the first Étude, and any clarity slightly wanting at the beginning was more than compensated in the ferocious intent of the D major Étude, McHale ensuring that the dense crashing chords were always exuberent but never brash. The technical challenges presented by the second of the Op.39 Études aren't as immediately obvious as others in the collection, but the difficulty lies in the voicing of the melody over the Dies Irae motive that permeates so much of Rachmaninoff's compositions. Although the opening phrases would perhaps have benefitted from a little more space to breathe, McHale excelled at capturing the wistful, bittersweet character of the piece.
The highlight of the performance was, however, the Brahms Four Ballades Op. 10, the most musically confident and structurally coherent performance of the evening. From the poignant tragedy of the first Ballade, to the rocking lullaby of the second, and the torments of the third, McHale’s innate musicality shone through, most particularly in an incredibly emotive fourth Ballade. Demonstrating superb control of dynamics and a rich colour palette, McHale luxuriated in the dusky warmth of the final Ballade. With a tempo reminiscent of Michelangeli, McHale retained enough of a hint of darkness to prevent the piece from slipping into self-indulgence, effecting something close to transcendence.
A final encore, what I presume was the pianist's own arrangement of the enchanting (and appropriate!) Irish air 'My Lagan Love' summed up the evening's performance – sweetly elegant, technically assured and intensely musical. This pianist has made his mark.
Photo: Michael McHale