Etudes That Dance, From Debussy Forward

February 12, 2013

United StatesUnited States  Debussy, Carter, Busoni, Birtwistle: Nicolas Hodges (piano), Zankel Hall, New York City. 21.1.2013 (BH)

Debussy: Etudes, Book I (1915)
Carter: Two Thoughts About the Piano (2007): “Intermittences” (2005), “Caténaires” (2006)
Busoni: Giga, bolero e variazione (after Mozart) from An die Jugend, Book III (1909)
Birtwistle: Gigue Machine (2012, US premiere)
Debussy: Etudes, Book II (1915)

This elegant recital at Zankel Hall by British pianist Nicolas Hodges sandwiched relative rarities in between Debussy’s daunting books of Etudes. Elliott Carter’s “Intermittences” and “Caténaires” (premiered by Peter Serkin and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, respectively) are typical of his late style: light, deftly imagined and demanding—and show the composer’s mind at its most mercurial. Hodges seemed completely at home here, dashing through “Intermittences” with the measured ear of someone who loves the composer, and after only the briefest of pauses, giving “Caténaires” the encore-quality flash it deserves.

Busoni’s short Giga, bolero e variazione (after Mozart) showed Hodges’s eloquence with the composer’s complexity—which can be formidable, but here is blended with Mozartean grace and a sense of perpetual motion. Likewise, Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Gigue Machine, with its light textures and rhythmic invention made a strong impression, its dance lines converging and diverging with suppleness, before its abrupt, quiet ending.

In the two Debussy bookends, to my ears the second set fared slightly better, starting with the pianist’s commanding fingerwork in “Pour les degrés chromatiques,” and later, his ringing accuracy in “Pour les notes répétées” with its intriguing echo effect. But he also found exquisite tension in “Pour les octaves,” between stillness and hyperactivity, and adopted just the right tone of detached bemusement for the initial “Pour les cinq doigts—d’apres Monsieur Czerny.”

Bruce Hodges


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