Noriko Ogama inaugurates piano series in Cardiff’s brand new hall

Mozart, Kanno, Liszt: Noriko Ogawa (piano), Dora Stoutker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 3.6.2011 (GPu)

Mozart , Piano Sonata in A minor (K.10 / 300d)
, Piano Sonata in C (K.330 / 300h)
A Particle of water, for piano and Myochin Hibashi chopsticks
, Sonata in B minor (S.178)

In recent years Cardiff has become increasingly well-endowed with top class concert venues. The latest – to sit alongside The Donald Gordon Theatre in the Millennium Centre (venue for performances by Welsh National Opera), St. David’s Hall, and the Hoddinott Hall (home of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and some other fine spaces – is the newly opened (and newly built) Dora Stoutzker Hall, within the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Part of a £22.5 million investment, this lovely Hall was designed by Jason Flanagan (an architect with a distinguished track-record in buildings for the arts ; he was, for example, Project Director for the Sage in Gateshead and worked on the conversion of the Avery Fisher Concert Hall at the Lincoln Center). It is essentially a classic shoebox shape, quite tall. With a capacity of 450, there are seats on two levels, including a balcony running right round the hall, its parapet gracefully shaped in a kind of undulation (though the basic structure may perhaps remind some audience members of one of the classic Welsh chapel designs). Lots of careful attention has been paid to acoustic considerations, seemingly with very good results; the Hall is lined with golden timber on the inside (which, at present, adds a delightful scent to the proceedings!) and on the outside is covered with untreated timber. Interior and exterior are both very handsome.

A few concerts have already taken place in the Hall – a Gala Opening was held on 18 June, featuring a song recital by Andrew Kennedy accompanied by Malcolm Martineau. The present concert was the first in a series under the general title of Cardiff International Piano Series, which will include recitals by the RWCMD’s own Polina Leschenko (she is International Chair in Piano at the College), Christian Blackshaw, Leslie Howard, Llyr Williams and Olli Mustonen. Noriko Ogawa’s recital made for a very auspicious start to the series and set an impressively high standard for her successors to aim at.

Ogawa began with two sonatas by Mozart. That in A minor, written in Paris in 1778 has reasonably enough often been taken to be one of the compositions that marks Mozart’s entry into his musical maturity. Noriko Ogawa’s reading of the opening allegro maestoso balanced its sense of urgency and its insistent left-hand chordal accompaniment with an ever-present awareness of the dance rhythms underlying this music, as they had underlain Mozart’s earlier sonatas, even if this writing has a new intensity. She sustained the necessary tension in the central slow movement, the relatively quiet and noble lyricism of the opening very effectively darkened, both emotionally and tonally, in the ensuing mild dissonances. The molto perpetuo of the closing presto was not quite as hard-driven as in some readings, but Ogawa intriguingly complemented edginess and passion with a sense of elegance that somehow gave the music’s approach to (and final elusion of) despair a striking poignancy.

In the (rather slighter) C major Sonata Ogawa invested the allegro’s quasi-galant writing with sparkle and vivacity; not for the first time she reminded one of the pervasiveness of the dance in Mozart’s piano writing. This movement can sound all-too-simple but Ogawa is unafraid of simplicity of phrase and line and allows that simplicity to speak for itself, without attending to it too fussily, pianistically speaking. She produced some particularly beautiful sounds in the central andante cantabile, their beauty a tribute both to Ogawa’s skill and to the quality of the Steinway she was playing, one of the 25 of which the College is rightly proud). The reading was as much meditative as lyrical, perhaps more full of thought than song, and the effect was very convincing. The contrast between the relative profundities of this slow movement and the more ‘external’ music of the closing allegretto was finely judged.

Unfamiliar territory (for me, at least) was reached with Yoshiko Kanno’s A Particle of Water, for piano and Myochin Hibashi chopsticks. (Though, in fact, this wasn’t the piece’s Welsh premiere – Ogawa played it at Gregynog Hall in Mid-Wales, in October of 2010). The music of Yoshiko Kanno (born in 1953) often deploys a combination of western instruments with distinctively Japanese sounds, whether or not those sounds are created by what might conventionally be thought of as musical instruments. Here the piano is accompanied (quite literally) by two rather special chopsticks, suspended on a stand by the piano. The Myochin Hibashi chopsticks are by no means everyday (or even practical) tools for eating; they are made of iron, in a manner of which the secret has been passed down from one craftsman to another. Heavy but pure, they emit an ethereal bell-like sound either when struck or moved by hand, or simply when vibrating in response to the piano. At times the result is a kind of halo of sound surrounding the louder notes of the piano; at other times, when swung gently by the pianist (at what are, I presume, points marked in the score) the chopsticks set up a long-lasting, slow-fading texture of rippling sound in dialogue, as it were, with the piano. The result is evocative, impressionistic musical imagery, full of shimmering reflective textures, of runs and cadences that by turns evoke stillness, flowing rivers and waterfalls, which exerts its charms on the listener as sensitively played by this pianist.

‘Charm’ is not a quality one would readily ascribe to Liszt’s titanic B minor Sonata, with which the recital ended. The work seems, more than almost any other, to speak comprehensively of the dualities of Liszt’s nature, a nature in which opposites co-existed, sometimes peacefully, often at war with one another. In its volatility, in its rapid transitions from one emotional and/or musical polarity to its antithesis, the sonata is the well-night perfect articulation of that (often very productive) condition of mind, on the borders of hypomania/mania, that is one of the recurrent features of Romanticism. Many interpretations of the piece, possessed of varying degrees of (im)plausibility, have been offered. It has been read, as amongst other things, as a kind of pianistic tone poem based on Goethe’s Faust; as a programmatic piece representing the Fall of Man, the Crucifixion and the last judgement; as a kind of musical autobiography; as a musical national epic of the Magyar people. All such readings are surely hopelessly specific, too eager to translate music into the non-musical. Yet it is a piece about which one feels the need to speak in a language beyond that of pure musical analysis. Noriko Ogawa’s compelling performance – which rapidly grabbed the attention and held it an unwavering grip throughout – certainly brought out the cogency of the work’s patterns of juxtaposition, of contestation, of development and recurrence, and integrated its contrasts, its alternate extroversion and introversion, its switches from complexity to simplicity (and the like) into a psychologically/spiritually plausible whole. Her well-paced reading – just very occasionally rushed in the moments of near stillness – recognised both the organic shape of the music, its fluidity of transition and sudden changes of direction and the underlying structural patterns which justify the designation of this extraordinary work as a sonata. The quality of the instrument she was playing and the excellent acoustics of the hall (blemished only by its not seeming to be perfectly sound-proofed, so that the occasional extraneous sound crept in) allowed her to push Liszt’s dynamic contrasts to something like an extreme. It is a truism to say that musical works begin and end in silence but this is one to which the remark seems to have a particular relevance. The three repeated notes with which the work opens and the single pianissimo low b on which it ends, seem to be the start and the end of a struggle between silence and statement, silence and music. Waves, storms of sound grow, break, blow themselves out and recede; the impulse to the sublime contends with that towards the intimate. The final winner is, as it has to be, silence and that falling back into silence seems to be part of the work’s very meaning. In one sense my comments have taken me beyond this particular performance; but in another they pay tribute to it, to the way in which it made me and – judging by the response of those around me – some other listeners search for words to ‘translate’ an intense performance into words which might begin (for they can do no more) to explain what it had meant to them.

Nor had we quite finished. As an encore, Noriko Ogawa opted to play a piece by her “favourite” composer, Debussy (of whose music she has, of course, made some highly praised recordings). The storms of the Liszt were calmed by a beautifully limpid performance of Clair de lune. And the audience could go out into, not moonlight, but bright sunshine!

Glyn Pursglove