Area keyboard fanciers look forward the two annual Adams Foundation Piano Recitals held in the intimate Whitley Auditorium on the lovely Elon University Campus. Stephen Adams, of Santa Barbara, California, inspired by his Yale University roommates John and Richard Contiguglia, established his foundation to combat the decline in solo recitals by sponsoring piano recitals in smaller communities throughout the nation. This concert was made possible by the support of both The Times-News and Elon University. This concert featured the welcome return of English pianist Ian Hobson in a ravishing program of outstanding pieces by Johannes Brahms (1833-97) balanced with a challenging sample of French “Impressionism” as represented by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Hobson’s virtuosity was harnessed to Elon’s beautifully restored 1922 Steinway Model D grand piano.

Brahms’ set of Three Intermezzi, Op. 117, was published in 1892. He said they were “cradle songs for my sorrows.” He inscribed “Sleep softly my child,” words of a Scottish lullaby, to No. 1 in E-flat. No. 2 is in B-flat minor and No. 3 is in C-sharp minor. There is a distilled, concentrated bitter-sweetness in these subtly mercurial and poignant pieces. They are high among my favorite works for piano. This was a superb appetizer for what was to come.

Brahms is unsurpassed as a master of the variation form. While, as a rule, he avoided technique for its own sake, his Two Books of Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35, are clear exceptions! My favorite “crutch,” John Gillespie in Five Centuries of Keyboard Music, writes “the work is fiendishly difficult, abounding in complicated passages of sixths and thirds, glissando octaves, prolonged trills, prodigious leaps, and rhythmic complexities.” It is a dramatic exploration of seemingly every imaginable possibility of the well-known theme, some pretty remote. The theme used is the Caprice No. 24 in A minor by Niccolò Paganini, followed by fourteen fiendishly difficult variations. It was composed for Liszt’s rival, Carl Tausig.

What a contrast! Hobson brought out all the ethereal beauty and emotional wistfulness of the Op. 117 set. Then he pulled out all the stops and played each “Paganini” book with a brief break between them. The performance was breathtaking to hear and to see. It is too bad Hobson’s excellent Complete Piano Variations of Johannes Brahms (2-CD Arabesque Z6654-2) appears to be out-of-print.

This Francophile was in seventh heaven during the post-intermission sampling of works by Debussy and Ravel. Seeing and hearing these works performed live adds much to the experience that is lost in just listening to recordings.

Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse” (1904) is thought to have been inspired by Watteau’s painting L’embarquement por Cythére; it is full of a Mediterranean spirit of carnival gaiety. According to Frank Dawes, in Debussy Piano Music, it opens with a cadenza mixing chromatic and whole-tone elements. It mixes exoticism with impressions of water before a surging melody sweeps all before it.

This was followed by the entire Book I of Images (1905). “Reflets dans l’eau” suggests the constant quiet shifting of reflections in a pool. Ripples, perhaps from a dropped pebble are painted in sound. French music has a rich tradition of composers writing musical tributes to their famous forerunners. “Hommage à Rameau” is a solemn saraband evoking the eighteenth century world of the clavecinists. “Mouvement” is an illusory dance “locked to immensely long pedal points” that give it a curiously static quality.

The  program ended with a truly rare treat! Ravel conceived his La Valse (1919) in orchestral terms from the beginning. According to Richard Freed’s CD program notes for Vox’s Minnesota Orchestra Ravel set, “a piano transcription was prepared as soon as the orchestral score was completed, but its ferocious difficulty has kept it from becoming as widely performed as the orchestral version.”

Mention of Rameau and the early French harpsichordists brought to mind the frequency of crossed hands throughout these Impressionist works. Hobson played the socks off these wonderful, evocative pieces. Hands not only crossed rapidly but also, often, ever so closely, suggesting a digital Gordian knot! What subtle shadings of tonal color he painted! The clarity of his articulation and his surety of rhythm were extraordinary.

The audience’s enthusiastic response on this watery night was rewarded with an exquisite performance of “Ondine” from Ravel’s Gaspar de la Nuit (1908), the first of its three movements.

Avid CD collectors ought to explore Hobson’s eclectic catalog on Zephyr Records, which ranges from extensive Beethoven and Chopin selections to such rarities as Ignaz Moscheles and Paderewski along with some vocal and choral music.