Four pianos put to good use


Ian Holtham

Move Records MD 3458

Being out of the scholarly musical world, I’m unaware of up-to-the-moment opinions concerning the use of modern instruments in the performance of baroque music. Dealing with anything earlier, I can understand a purist’s revulsion, for example, at hearing an estampie performed on a saxophone-and-drum-kit combination, or hearing a singer of Sting’s calibre attempting lute songs by Dowland. The aesthetic gorge rises. What about this double CD from the University of Melbourne’s piano guru where Scarlatti is given the full concert hall treatment on each of the four Conservatorium Steinways? The accompanying leaflet insists that selected sonatas have been assigned to specific pianos, depending on the characteristics of the scores and their appropriateness for the different instruments. The more time-honoured problem remains: is there a place for Scarlatti in the repertoire of a concert pianist, or should we let the 555 sonatas become the harpsichordist’s province only?

I’ve never had much patience with the strict nature of performance claims made by certain period instrumentalists; less of them are doctrinaire nowadays, compared to the fervour at work in the 1960s and 1970s when purity of delivery was the aim, if rarely achieved. It might be worth my carrying out a particular exercise that would involve going back through the archives and finding out exactly how many poor early music recitals/concerts I’ve experienced – everything from playing out-of-tune (‘I was using mean temperament!’) to complete absence of expression (‘ Vibrato was never authorized by Leopold Mozart’) to plain fluffed notes or whole phrases (‘Everyone knows that leap is impossible on the dulcian’). I’m sure that even the most cursory examination will show that the worst experiences have been at the hands of local musicians – who are quickest to cavil when you call them out for incompetence.

After those early music writhings endured six decades ago (usually in churches), we eventually experienced visitors who could actually play/sing early music so that you didn’t anticipate each attempt at a Gabrieli canzon with fear or a Locke ayre with loathing. Not to mention the exposure to real medieval music with ensembles boasting members who could stay in tune – with each other and the prevailing mode/tonality. We still have throwbacks to the practices of yesteryear where near enough passes as good enough; I can pretty well name the few native valveless horn players who can be trusted with a Bach Brandenburg or a Vivaldi concerto and not setting your teeth on edge in the process.

But the field still has its precious quarters; in my experience, far more so than in any other corner of musical performance with an occasional exception from the ultra-modern ranks, where the aim is to deflect evaluation with arcane, usually mathematical intricacy.

Ian Holtham isn’t exactly trespassing on hallowed ground by performing Scarlatti on his pianos; most of us would have become acquainted with this composer through recordings by Clara Haskil; Landowska and Valenti in my youth were simply names in music magazines and journals. Further, he sits in highly distinguished company. Still, the sonatas do lose vitality, even piquancy when transferred away from the plucky harpsichord.

Along with a host of other Australian piano students, I grew up with the Ricordi collection of 25 sonatas as edited by Alessandro Longo. A few of these have been picked up for these CDs: K. 96 in D Major and K. 159 in C Major, this latter nicknamed La caccia (by Longo? Kirkpatrick?). Among the rest are some that have featured in recital programs while the last track of all, the K. 435 in D Major, was used by Tommasini for his The Good-Humoured Ladies ballet, as was the B minor K. 87 which appears in Holtham’s fourth group. But most of the sonatas are unknown to me – which is all to the good, as who wants to wallow in the familiar?

The first CD opens with five sonatas, all but the middle in C Major, that odd-man-out an A minor. These are performed on the Steinway No. 4 in the Conservatorium’s collection; this one is assessed by the performer as having ‘warm, sunny tones’ and ‘an openness of sound’ that is best suited to these uncomplicated tonalities. The K. 420 makes a pleasant enough call to arms with its internal repeated trumpet notes, only some slight hesitations at negotiating the odd left-hand leap acting as a distraction to a vital enough reading. The Cantabile K. 132 is distinguished for its care with detail, like the different types of tremolo in bars 29 and 31 (later, bars 69 and 71) and the carefully applied splaying of certain left hand chords.

The K. 54 A minor is a crossed-hands test, Holtham handling those passes with a minimum of delay, and he keeps the double-octave rhetoric at the end of each half fairly light. Again, the well-known K. 159 jig sounds jaunty if under-emphatic, particularly in off-the-beat high note bars like 14-16 and 18-20 where you’d expect some bite. Last in this cluster, the K. 461 is an uneven collation where ideas are juxtaposed and interpretation becomes pretty much a question of rhythmic impulse. Holtham splits the sonata into clumps, inserting pauses as demarcation lines, particularly in the second half’s G minor pages. But the work is odd, not least for the Schubertian suggestions starting at bar 84, and again for those Clementine bursts of contrary motion.

Holtham moves to Steinway No. 2, which is variously described s ‘svelte’, ‘acoustic bitter dark chocolate”, having ‘a rasping quality in stronger dynamics’ and ‘an especially dramatic presence’. So, naturally, enough, it becomes the vehicle for minor sonatas in all the white keys but B. The K. 7 in A minor bounded where I would have liked more bounce as well as a sacrifice of ornamentation for speed, plus a clearer definition of those triplet bursts at bars 45-6, 53-4, and at the equivalent places in the second part. The following K. 263 in E minor suited Holtham’s severe approach much better with a deft alteration between gravity and questioning, the only problem an uneven rhythmic flow across bars 69 to 71 on both runs-through.

The first half of the D minor K. 517 appeared to suffer from more irregular delivery in some early right-hand quaver groupings but it was hard to tell if this came about because of a deviation from digital regularity or from the pianist’s individual note dynamics. Suffice to say, the problem didn’t appear after the half-way mark. As for the jauntily grave K. 426 in G minor, this also played to Holtham’s strengths, delineated with an attractive finesse and inevitability despite the inbuilt pauses. Again, you would be pressed to find fault with the C minor K. 84, except for those awkward scales in bars 63, 64, 66 and 67 with their two interpolated demi-semiquavers which disrupt the regularity that obtains up to that point and which are hard to integrate successfully. As for the K. 239 in F minor, this made an unsatisfying ending to the No. 2 Steinway output because it was delivered at an uncomfortably rapid pace. It didn’t matter in the polonaise bars but the downward scales came over as uneven and uncomfortable, particularly in this most interesting of the minor key pieces.

The most commonly used of the Conservatorium Steinways, No. 3, is described as owning ‘great tonal adaptability’ – in fact, ‘a genial tonal openness . . . like an acoustic smile’, which makes it appropriate for ‘the dashing virtuosity’ to be found in the following set of six sonatas. You can hear the benignity in the F Major K. 366 which opens this second disc’s six-part series and the experience would be unblemished if not for two right-hand passages in 6ths (bars 31-2, 39-40; later 58-61)) which sound awkward, unexpectedly difficult in their execution during an otherwise fine toccata. There’s a splendidly firm touch to the B flat Major K. 545, despite an odd falter in the left-hand solo at bars 5-6, and a tendency to elongate the bar’s time-space for the sake of ornamentation from bar 12 on.

A real delight is Holtham’s account of the K. 15 in G Major: packed with vitality and minimal disruption of pace for those wide left-hand leaps in the sonata’s second half, and a welcome clarity of texture with little (any?) use of the sustaining pedal. I relished the rasgueado chords that splayed out at bars 50, 52, 128 and 130 during the K. 209 in A Major: another bright-sounding interpretation with plenty of personality. A fair few small pauses or commas were inserted into the D Major K. 492, most of them understandable but the interpretation was of the aforementioned segmented type: excellent in some parts, laboured in others (like the pattern-setting left-hand one in bar 18 where all the notes are present but metrically hard to differentiate). By contrast, the last in this sequence – K. 216 in E Major – showed a welcome authority and insight, both in treating those rushing scales that generate a supple excitement, especially from bar 129 to the end, and also in a sudden easing of tension into a strolling casualness at bars 99 and 121.

We come now to the last Steinway, No. 1, and the Conservatorium’s least heard of the four pianos. With regard to this, Holtham is full of praise, seeing it as possessing ‘superb tonal range and an abiding expressive adaptability.’ His final group of works are in D Major or B minor, keys where Scarlatti is able to summon up ‘full orchestral qualities and gentle, plaintive mimicry’. Not sure that I heard either in the D Major K. 490, but the reading was near-exemplary in its melding of sudden shocks into a composite, with the extra inbuilt charm of added-note left-hand chords generating the occasional harmonic frisson.

With the B minor K. 87, Holtham gives free rein to the piano’s ability to keep four lines separate and clear while using the instrument’s expressive power. The part-writing remained penetrable and lucid but the executant also infused his version with a Chopinesque sensibility and understated rubato in a notable track that stood out from its surrounds. K.119 in D Major is highly challenging and, at the end of this performance, I wasn’t convinced that it transfers well to the piano. For one thing, it needs more rapidity and a lighter touch than it received here; for another, those grating discords starting at bar 61 and later at bar 163 sound muddy on a Steinway; as well, the right-hand repeated notes came over as laboured.

Another gem in this collection is the mobile, melancholy B minor K. 27, here given a masterly treatment where the texture remains transparent but the actual sound colour verges on Romantic with a slight sense of rhythmic elision, capped by a splendidly shaped burst of harmonic richness across bars 17 to 20. Holtham’s hand-crossing is seamless throughout and his dynamic output even and sympathetic to each phrase’s context. Most pianists who have essayed Scarlatti know the D Major K. 96 and Holtham gives it an honest-speaking account, facing its difficulties square-on, be it the rebounds from those left-hand top As or the implied guitar buzz of repeated right-hand single notes. But the moments that appealed to me more were the buoyant octave-heavy bursts that conclude both halves.

Holtham adds an envoi, the D Major K. 435, which he discovered in his student days and which has sustained his affection. More of us would know it as the second movement from the suite made from Tommasini’s 1917 orchestration exercise for the Ballets Russes. The pianist carries it off with gusto and clear enthusiasm, although I didn’t understand why he slowed down for the opening 3 1/2 bars of the sonata’s second part, picking up the prevailing tempo when the left hand returned to the bass clef. Still, this addition made a happy finishing-off point for Holtham’s compendium which is of excellent technical quality, an example of Move record engineering at its best.

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