This afternoon on the Berkeley campus British pianist Nicolas Hodges performed one of the more challenging programs in recent memory- Karlheinz Stockhausen's Klaviersück X (Piano Piece No. 10) and Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata, Op.106. The first was composed in 1954 and revised in 1961, the latter composed in 1818. One common element of both works is the desire of the composers to expand the boundaries of what can be performed on piano. Another is the sheer challenge of playing them. The attempt alone drew a curious audience, which seemed equally split on which piece held the greater interest.
Hodges walked onstage, took a brief bow, sat down at the bench and began to play immediately. This was all business- no show. It wasn't necessary. Klaviersück X is extreme in its demands. Hodges, wearing fingerless gloves, played with his forearms, elbows, and palms as well as with his fingers. Stockhausen repeats nothing in the piece, there is no form in sense the listener may expect to hear (this listener, at least), as in sonata form, but form nevertheless arises amid the chaos and the quiet and the work takes on a definite shape as it unfolds, explodes and finally implodes over 20 some-odd minutes. Most impressive were the reverberations emanating from the piano, which created electronically-tinged sounds I never knew the instrument could make. I've never heard it before, and after hearing it I'm not sure a recording could do it proper justice. I would say it needs to be experienced in a live performance to grasp, at least initially. Having no prior experience with it, I can't say how well it was performed, but I will say unequivocally it was quite thrilling to hear.
The Hammerklavier didn't fare as well for me. This work I know. The Allegro, Scherzo and Largo/Fugue movements were all played incredibly fast. Too fast methinks, as the notes began to spill over one another, eventually starting to land in a jumble. The tempo in which Hodges chose to play the piece isn't the problem for me, but rather the speed caused the piece to lose its one of its most amazing elements- a distinct flow of individual notes which seem to endlessly cascade over one another, twisting themselves into forming melodies and lines they have no right to create. The Hammerklavier is like a Richter painting- it shouldn't really make sense but it's all right there in front of you once the design reveals itself. I didn't get that from Hodges' interpretation, except for the adagio, which seemed bent so far in the other direction, played with such a deliberate slowness, that the it almost seemed on the verge of collapsing at times. Playing all four movements at their margins, Hodges seemed to be choosing style and execution over thoughtful interpretation.
Still, programming like this is to be commended, appreciated, and in the end, applauded. Hodges succeeded in connecting the threads between two seemingly disparate musical pioneers. I look forward to his next Bay Area appearance. This one was part of Cal Performances, who have a ridiculous amount of great things to see and hear this year.
The bloggers were out in force for this one, even though there was a pretty enticing program going on at Davies at the same time. Patrick, Axel, the Opera Tattler, the Last Chinese Unicorn and Joshua Kosman were all in attendance. After the show, Patrick and I repaired to Jupiter for pizza, beer, discussion and debate. One thing we both agreed on: the banality of both Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun" and Pink Floyd's "The Wall."