Hobson opens Debussy-Ravel series with mixed rewards

Thu Nov 30, 2017 at 12:11 pm
Ian Hobson performed Monday night at Merkin Concert Hall.

Ian Hobson performed Wednesday night at SubCulture.

Pianist Ian Hobson has created a substantial recital series for himself this season; “Sound Impressions: The Piano Music of Debussy & Maurice Ravel.” The two composers created some of the great works in the piano literature, and as recital programs tend to reflexively lean toward 19th century German composers and Chopin, this music is not heard often enough in concert.

Over the course of six concerts, Hobson will play Debussy’s Préludes, Images, Pour le piano, and more, and also Jeux d’eau,Valse nobles et sentimentales, Miroirs, and more from Ravel. That is a substantial challenge in terms of preparation alone.

Hobson’s opening recital at SubCulture  Wednesday night inadvertently showed just how daunting the task is. There were problems with some of the playing, and one ultimately left with a greater sense of admiration for what Hobson is doing and frustration with the results.

His trademark is power, and an intensity of expression and excitement that comes out of that. There are plenty of places in Debussy’s and Ravel’s composing where power is the perfect approach. But that comes in the context of a wide range of dynamics, textures, colors, and articulations.

Hobson played without intermission, though with only brief pauses at the piano between each work, all the way through Gaspard de la nuit, and the audience obliged by listening and not interrupting the flow of the music with applause.

Where Hobson’s playing lacked satisfaction, it was when he didn’t seem to fully grasp the music’s essential idiom. There were digital slips, but when his thinking was clear and his playing supported that, those were inconsequential to the experience.

In the opening part of his first set, there were some smudges, places where the fingers hesitated slightly. Those flaws were consequential. They didn’t sound like a lack of practice or insufficient familiarity with the music, they sounded like a musician who had not yet made up his mind about what the music was about, and how to get inside it.

After the quick Minuet in C-sharp minor from Ravel, Hobson half-listened, half-thought his way through Debussy’s two Danse bohémienne and his Morceau du concours. His playing was dry, with little legato or a full, ringing sound from the piano.

Deux Arabesques, also by Debussy, were totally different—the music flowed. Hobson’s preparation had brought inside the music, hearing it come out of himself, with no more decisions to be made or options to be evaluated.

Debussy’s quasi-posthumous Images (oubliées)—they were available in his lifetime but disappeared for decades after his death—were at the same high level, with the palpable liquid quality that the composer achieved in his piano music.

Gaspard was a little shaky at first, the repeated patterns in the right hand sounded a little clumsy, and again it was unclear what Hobson wanted to do with the music. But when “Ondine” moved into its first flourishes, a colorful and strongly romantic interpretation came into view.

An earlier tendency toward marcato articulation morphed into a richer palette of legato phrases, sustained notes, consistent and sensible pedaling. The pace and angle of his crescendo in the movement was viscerally exciting.

His playing of “Le Gibet” was unusually heavy, yet it worked. The spookiness was not that of a vision, but of something nearby, agitated and threatening. “Scarbo” upped the ante with a thrilling malevolence. The quick right-hand passages were aggressive.

Hobson’s heavy hand was less appropriate for Book 2 of Debussy’s Préludes. On an individual basis, it would likely be successful, but playing all 12 together means surveying a variety of textures and moods, and also traveling through the entire range of Debussy’s humor, from the charm of ”Ondine” to the loving mockery of the cake-walk for Général Lavine. The habanera rhythm of “La Puerta del Vino” never came out.

But in the sonically denser and more expressively ambiguous etudes, like “Brouillards”, the effect was fulfilling. At the end, “Les tierces alternées” and “Feux d’artifice” fiery and rather thrilling.

“Sound Impressions” runs through April 18 of next year. The next concert is 7:30 p.m., December 13, and will include Debussy’s Six Épigraphes Antiques and Children’s Corner and Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante Défunte and Sonatine. subculturenewyork.com

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