Heavy-handed visions

RACHMANINOV, RAMEAU & COWELL

Timothy Young

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday December 11

Timothy Young

Well known and cherished as the long-time resident piano guru at the South Melbourne-sited Australian National Academy of Music, as well as his foundation status as the keyboard component of that excellent trio, Ensemble Liaison, Timothy Young has appeared in two previous events of Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt’s Melbourne Digital Concert Hall series before this solo recital on Friday evening. For those of us who had categorized this performer as straight-down-the-line orthodox, his Cowell/Rameau/Rachmaninov program served as an eye-opener in nearly every aspect that matters.

You’d be stretching to find anything disturbing about the two Cowell pieces that began the night. Aeolian Harp from 1923 comprises only 26 bars and these days it impresses as what it probably is: an early study in re-imagining the piano, the composer daring to venture inside the lid and play rapid arpeggios/glissandi on the strings. Young told us that he had to effect some transpositions because Cowell’s piano differed from the one in the Athenaeum Theatre. Apart from the necessity to hold down the relevant keys while operating them also inside the instrument, the player has to follow the composer’s dynamic directions which admittedly aren’t difficult. Thanks to Young for resurrecting this piece, even if it sounds like no Aeolian harp I’ve heard or imagined.

The second of the Cowell pieces, The Tides of Manaunaun, opens the composer’s 1917 Three Irish Legends suite and stands as the best-known example of his use of tone clusters. While the right hand plays a melody with ensuing transpositions and amplifications, the left hand and forearm produce note clusters of differing shapes . . . well, that’s not really true as the specified compass comprises two chords until the piece’s semi-climactic point where the melody is imitated out of contention by matching sound blocks in the bass. Young performed this innovative two-page, 36-bar composition with impressive power, happy to deliver Cowell’s glowering four bars of quadruple forte before, like Aeolian Harp, the fabric dies away to silence.

Although the quiet didn’t last. I thought my score had been truncated as Young continued playing in Manaunaun mode before suddenly bursting into Rameau’s Tambourin from the 1724 Suite in E minor. This well-known Baroque gem came over with unusual aggression, using the piano’s percussive powers to an elevated degree. Some of the right hand work occasionally misfired; surprising, as there’s nothing to distract you in the bass. Again, we had an improvised lead-in to Le rappel des oiseaux which appears in the same collection. From the start, Young punished the lower mordents that provide much of this insistent piece’s atmosphere of persistent avian strife. I didn’t understand why the pianist took a long pause at bar 30; the sonic melange changes but not by much and not for long. The mordents in both hands from bar 48 on fairly spat at each other before the quarrel led, via a reminiscence of Purcell’s Dido, into Les tendres plaintes. Here again, Young gave ample room for added notes, accents and rhythmic ups and downs in an approach that dressed Rameau’s bare bones in ornate clothing, like changing quaver scale passages into dotted quaver-plus-semiquaver patterns, and repeating single notes in quick succession like some passages in the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610.

Similar alterations emerged in Les tourbillons, which followed without a link. Here again, the approach emphasized the percussive and the rhythmic fun and games mirrored the piece’s title with a free-hand approach to the arpeggios and scales that come near the conclusion to the large central segment of this piece. A lead-in of repeated patterns took us into the final Rameau work, Les cyclopes where we heard a fair rendering of a refined forge in operation. Some digital errors were obvious in the central part, probably brought about by over-emphasis, and also in the rapid alternating hands quaver pointillism, while the last four bars forfeited clarity for the sake of a sonorous deluge.

Which led without a pause into the Rachmaninov Sonata No. 2. Eventually, I worked out that Young was performing the revised 1931 version of this splendid score; the MDCH program notes arrived late up here in the north. But the first movement interpretation disappointed because of its bull-at-a-gate mode of attack. Whole pages rattled by in a driven mesh, melodies overwhelmed by passages stuffed with escorting incidentals, the process coming to an occasional halt like the second subject’s emergence at the 12/8 Meno mosso point. But the movement ‘s focus fell on broiling action and over-weighty dynamics, any forward progress also dissipated by a liberal application of rubato.

Thankfully, the following Lento brought a more pointed and deliberate approach with a fine control over the soft clutters that broaden into a spacious fortissimo burst at the movement’s heart. Still, the concluding Allegro molto turned into a welter in which fortissimo became the default position for long stretches. Further, the insistent nature of Young’s production meant that anything that did go wrong was all too obvious, like a miscarried emphatic right hand note four bars before the Tempo I direction. I struggled to find any directional sense in the entire page preceding the Tempo rubato section, not assisted by a relentless application of the sustaining pedal.

Finally, the Presto that starts 27 bars from the end muddied the waters even further. Any contrast between triplets and straight quavers at the start to this section was hard to pick out; that wonderful skipping motion at the right hand octavo sign was articulated too rapidly to relish; and you felt no relief at the 2nd Piano Concerto alternating chords starting seven bars from the end. I didn’t time the performance but it would have been one of the fastest I’ve attended with a huge amount of energy expended for a frustrating outcome. Young has the sonata at his fingertips but what he conveys with this knowledge amounts to little more than virtuosic display – which is part of the score’s fabric, certainly, but it’s only where your interpretation starts. I think the work would have been better handled with less haste, more definition in its many note-crowded pages, and a clearer perception of the composer’s long bouts of heavily-complected languor.