Regional keyboard fanciers ought to be more aware of the Fall and Spring Adams Foundation Piano Recitals held in the intimate Whitley Auditorium on the campus of Elon University. The foundation, based in Ventura, California, establishes piano recitals in select smaller communities throughout America as part of an effort to encourage a revival of the vanishing solo recital. Besides getting a chance to hear some of the finest pianists of the day, they are heard playing the university's gloriously restored 1923 Steinway D piano.
Ian Hobson made a welcome return to the series, and his program of select early and late works by Frederic Chopin (1810-49) coincided nicely with the recent flurry of concerts in area colleges honoring the composer. The versatile musician, pianist, conductor, and educator with an international reputation, studied music at the Royal Academy of Music and Cambridge University in England, and at Yale University in the United States. His teachers have included Sidney Harrison, Ward Devenny, Claude Frank, and Menahem Pressler. His international career was launched in 1981 when he won the First Prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition. Hobson addressed the audience briefly from the stage, as each half of the concert began, drawing attention to Chopin's place in music history and to aspects of the composer's style.
Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, composed in 1835-36 during his early days in Paris, opened Hobson's recital. The composer pioneered the ballade as a musical form and his four ballades influenced Brahms and Liszt. The ballades are emotionally rich, romantic "stories" told in music, unconstrained by strict compositional rules such as those for the sonata form. They gave the composer's imagination unfettered room for expression. In a published letter composer Robert Schuman reported Chopin said, about this Ballade, he "liked it most and (held) it dearest." Hobson gave a powerful performance of the work, employing a wide dynamic range, subtle phrasing, and extraordinarily clear articulation, no matter how fast the scales, chords, or how wide the octaves or how difficult the fingerings.
Hobson said Chopin's Twelve Études, Op. 23 were composed during the composer's late teenage years between 1828 and 1830. While they were not composed in the published order, Chopin clearly wanted them arranged in this order because of carefully considered key relationships. The composer's approach was revolutionary, transforming a boring technical form into extraordinary musical jewels. Hobson's fiery performance lacked nary an arrow from a virtuoso's quiver. His articulation was breath-taking and the fastest passages held no fear for him. My favorite was Étude No. 3 in E with its poignant theme and air of wistful remembrance. What a treat it was to watch him execute the Étude No. 5 in G flat, "Black Key!" Hobson brought out all the stormy and "man-the-barricades" quality of the 12th Étude in C minor, "Revolutionary."
Before playing Chopin's last Nocturnes, No. 1 in B and No. 2 in E, Op. 62, Hobson said they differed greatly from the other nocturnes. He said the composer was looking back to J.S. Bach and was emphasizing polyphony. He drew attention to the return of the theme in the second nocturne which is full of trills as a sort of reminiscence of harpsichord music. Musical lines were crystal-clear in Hobson's performance.
Hobson's superb performance of Chopin's Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 brought the audience to their feet. The first movement's musical structure was especially strongly delineated. The scherzo was delightfully characterized. His largo was a seamless, serene and sustained flow of melody. The finale had all the stormy and turbulent qualities needed.
Hobson's gave two encores. His first selection was the A-flat second of the posthumous Trois Nouvelles Études (according to a friend). The second encore was drawn from Chopin's Études, Op. 25. He pulled out all the stops for No. 11 in A minor and nick-named "Winter Wind." He played it in response to a shouted request from the audience. Many of Hobson's more recent recordings can be found on Zephyr Records.