Hobson’s Schumann series turns to chamber works with mixed results 

Sat May 11, 2024 at 2:11 pm
By Ben Gambuzza
Ian Hobson and friends performed chamber works of Schumann Friday night at the Tenri Cultural Institute.

Friday evening’s concert at the Tenri Cultural Institute by pianist Ian Hobson and friends was spirited and passionate. But there was a volume problem. Winces abounded, the man next to me covered his ears toward the end, and several people walked out onto West 13th St. saying as much.

Hobson, who is in his fourth year of performing all of Schumann’s works for piano, has two years left. Friday evening, he checked off the composer’s Phantasiestücke, Piano Quartet in E-flat, and Piano Quintet in E-flat.

The space is also at fault. Not so much a hall as a big gallery room with tall ceilings, no acoustic paneling, and a harsh tinniness, it muddled Schumann’s carefully crafted dissonances.   

Of course, the works themselves are blameless. That is, unless you count the fault that Charles Rosen found with the composer’s handling of larger works: they buckle at the transitions. 

Surprisingly, Hobson and his players suffered less in the transition department than in the finesse aisle. Hobson’s heavy use of rubato made the transitions work. His strategy is often to begin a new section rubato and ease into it, rather than to highlight the shock of the new. But the same tendency resulted in frequent losses of momentum, uneven emphases in the melody, and even blatant fudging of rhythms.

Take the Phantasiestücke, which Hobson played with Jun Iwasaki on violin and Ko Iwasaki on cello. Hobson started off the “Romance” with an apt dusky, weighty touch. He got into lockstep with the strings and they all seemed to be on the same page with how much rhythmic freedom they’d allow themselves.

In the Beethovenian “Humoreske,” this coherence continued, especially as Hobson and Iwasaki executed some unison iterations of theme with memorable clarity. But soon enough, Hobson started playing eighth notes almost as triplets. Even the page turner, confused, suddenly looked at the pianist when she noticed the rhythms were off. And when the strings began to play unpronounced, messy turns, one’s confidence in the ensemble was permanently shaken. Jun Iwasaki’s lovely singing tone in the “Duett” could not save them; nor could the ensemble’s propulsive tutti in the “Finale.”

Throughout the Phantasiestücke, Hobson’s playing was tense, almost too seriousnfor music that is moody and often playful. His fingers just couldn’t seem to loosen up in the Quartet, which featured Csaba Erdélyi on viola, Iwasaki on cello, and Andrés Cárdenes on violin. In the Scherzo, whose staccato main theme has an ominous Gretchen-Am-Spinnrade quality, Hobson often petered out, like Gretchen walking away from her spinning wheel while it’s still in motion. The pianist struggled to keep tempo for the string players and even let the right hand run away with the melody while his left-hand accompaniment lagged along.

Thankfully, after intermission Hobson seemed to have relaxed a bit. He launched into the sunny “Allegro brilliante” of the Quintet (Jun Iwasaki on second violin) with a lightness and control that was gripping. His offsetting of melodic voices between the left and right hands was often interesting and original. He even allowed himself to get dancey in the scherzo. The strings followed along and played the folky mordants with a panache that made me smile. In the grand, heart-swelling last movement, Hobson faltered in the off-beat melody of the development section but finished strong,

Ben Gambuzza is a freelance book editor, writer, and researcher living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice and The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications, and he hosts The Best Is Noise, a live classical music show on Radio Free Brooklyn. As a pianist, he has performed several times at Weill Recital Hall and has competed across New England.

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