Charles Owen impresses in Bach and Schubert

Bach, Ravel, Schubert: Charles Owen (piano). Wigmore Hall. London. 12.5.2011 (KC)

J S Bach: Partita no 6 in E minor BVW 830
Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin
Schubert: Piano sonata in A minor D845
Impromptu in G flat Op. 90/3

The Bach constituted a magnificent beginning. The Partitas were Bach’s first published instrumental works and the sixth Partita is the most difficult of them. They were published one by one when Bach was just over 40; not early works exactly, it would seem. This particular Partita begins with an imposing Toccata and finishes with an intricate Gigue, one which Misha Donat describes as ‘the most severe piece of its kind Bach ever wrote’. The Toccata has declaratory grandeur. It reads like something written for the organ.

Charles Owen used a Steinway. He thus played the Partita – with panache and bravura – on a modern instrument. He made no apology; nor did he play staccato-like and quietly so as to suggest to us that he just might be playing on a harpsichord. No, this was full-blooded playing – forthright and vigorous. (Yet, in style, it was no extract from a late-Romantic piano concerto.) In concept, this was neither classical nor romantic. The style was modern, robust, contrapuntal, with strong inner voices and just the occasional romantic intonation. This was a Bach of body and temperament as well as mind – a human being, not a sewing-machine.

I had a mixed reaction to the Tombeau de Couperin – Ravel’s suite comprising a prelude, a fugue, a toccata and three traditional French dance forms. A ‘Tombeau’ commemorates a distinguished person’s death, in a formal lament. Ravel wrote his ‘tombeau’ for Couperin during the First World War, reviving the format, which had lapsed. It may be that the ‘distinguished person’ concerned is France itself, for the work encompasses both the French cultural heritage (epitomised by Couperin) and the personal loss to Ravel of several close friends killed in the trenches. He named six of them as individual dedicatees to each of the six movements.

We heard the original version – for piano. It is technically difficult – indeed, Charles Owen was unsparing of himself in choosing this concert programme for himself. At its premiere in 1919, Marguerite Long – wife to a former student of Ravel’s, a fallen friend – was the soloist.

I found the performance perplexing. There was little indication of the work constituting a lament – though that is much due to the emotional reticence of Ravel’s writing. What we had instead was a robust turbulence, interspersed with fragments of poised emotional stillness. It was as though a heated, impassioned Claude Debussy was dominating an entretien with Maurice Ravel … with Ravel only managing the occasional half sentence from time to time. Furthermore, the dance movements (forlane, rigaudon and minuet) did not dance; nor did the fugue sound particularly fugal. Even less did the performance suggest the lively formality of Couperin or the French keyboard tradition. I was at a loss.

The Schubert, on the other hand, was engrossing, gripping and powerful. Charles Owen seemed to have marched back into home territory and, with ease, resumed mastery of it. I do not mean he put his feet up, for this is a formidable, driven sonata – in Owen’s hands, a lashing, rolling masterpiece.

The particularly fine first movement moves with concentrated power from resigned sadness to stricken outburst, with a vibrant moment of sunlit joy. The monumental, rocklike gravity of its structure was impressive – a tribute to Charles Owen’s firm and capable command of the content. (There was no suggestion of self-indulgent meandering on the composer’s part.) The theme and variations were more restrained, but deliberate, explorative and poised. The concluding rondo – allegro vivace – had the agitated liveliness of nerve endings all a-tingle. The movement grew in power, swelling into melody that briefly intertwined jubilation and heartbreak. It ended in a powerful, thrusting helter-skelter, likely to speed off into the far distance, had it not been brought to heel by two peremptory, definitive stamps of command. Tautly and stiffly, Charles Owen took his applause, unsmiling. This was the body language of someone who had already given his all.

Almost immediately, he sat down and gave us a rippling, soothing hearing of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat. This was a flowing solace. Life was beginning again after those peremptory stamps of command a few minutes earlier. Charles Owen’s stance was much more relaxed now. He smiled. Clearly, he had needed to play this particular Impromptu as much as we had needed to hear it.

Ken Carter