April 21, 2014

Back to Bach – A Review

Back to Bach – A Review

An edited version of this article appeared in the Straits Times on 21 April 2014 with the heading ‘Powerful Performance Back to Bach’.

Back to Bach
Kenneth Hamilton, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio/Sunday

Natalie Ng

Because he played a programme full of lesser-known composer Alkan’s works at his recital last year, Scottish virtuoso pianist Kenneth Hamilton explained that he returned this year with a concert centred around Bach, arguably the most famous composer of all time. Speaking in between pieces, Hamilton introduced each work, giving humorous anecdotes about the composers and pieces before performing.

The recital opened and ended with two monumental Liszt works, the Fantasy on B-A-C-H and the emotionally charged Variations on Bach’s ‘Weinen, klagen’; and within the opening chords he showed, despite his lanky frame, a powerful presence in his playing, building up a massive wall of sound. The Variations were aptly prefaced by the Busoni-Bach choral prelude Ich Ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, which fit thematically and musically.

For most of the evening it was as though the Steinway piano in the Recital Studio had been transformed into a grand five-manual organ in a majestic cathedral – Hamilton gave a technically, intellectually and musically commanding performance, emphasising the qualities of harmonic daring and refinement in the Liszt, and showing sheer intensity in Busoni’s arrangement of the Chaconne. When he performed nothing could disturb his concentration, not even the constant clicking from the piano’s damper pedal every time it was depressed during the entire duration of the first half.

As though a palate-cleanser from the excesses of Romanticism, the only ‘proper Bach’ featured was the Fifth French Suite in G. Unlike the Liszt Fantasy before it, he sat unmoving over the keyboard, used the pedal sparingly, and teased out the delicate textures, playing the slower Sarabande and Loure in a quasi-improvisatory manner.

Busoni’s arrangement of the three choral preludes Brahms wrote before his death were a reflection of Bach’s, and proved to be a sweet and sentimental opening to the second half of the programme. Following it was a witty rendition of Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of the E Major Solo Violin Partita, for as much as it tried to be Bachian, the sparkly prelude and fast-paced gigue sandwiching the leisurely gavotte kept giving away Rachmaninoff’s quirky side.

Bringing an end to the recital was a suitably appropriate encore, the slightly indulgent Percy Grainger arrangement of John Dowland’s Now, O Now, I Needs Must Part, originally a sixteenth century part song for voices. The back of the programme booklet shows a cartoon of Hamilton at the piano, facing the reader with a speech bubble saying, “I’ll be Bach”, a pun on the word ‘back’. With such innovative programmes and a wide fan base, one can be sure that he would, indeed, be back to perform in the years to come.

A post-concert picture with Prof. Hamilton outside the recital studio. After two years and two email interviews, I finally got to meet him in person 🙂

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