An Extraordinary Journey

MIKE WHEELER listens to Charles Owen's piano recital at the 2022 Buxton Festival


Following his stand-in appearance at last year's Buxton Festival, pianist Charles Owen returned with a programme of music from the 1830s – St John's Church, Buxton, UK, 8 July 2022.

He opened with five of Felix Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words, bringing out the implied vocal qualities, particularly in Op 19 No 1, and giving Op 30 No 1 a subtle rhythmic flexibility that did not draw attention to itself. The gently gliding barcarolle of 'Venetian Gondola song', Op 38 No 6, led easily into the strongly characterised dialogue of Op 48 No 6, nicknamed 'Duetto', and the group ended with a bubbly account of 'Spinning Song', Op 67 No 4. The understated poignancy of Clara Schumann's Romance in E flat minor, Op 11 No 1, slotted into the sequence readily.

Charles Owen. Photo © 2014 Sim Canetty-Clarke
Charles Owen. Photo © 2014 Sim Canetty-Clarke

Robert Schumann's Carnaval, a portrait-gallery of both real and fictional characters, can seem bitty, but a performance like this one shows how it all hangs together. After an imperious, almost defiant account of the opening 'Préambule', 'Pierrot' raced impetuously round the keyboard, the staccato interjections of 'Arlequin' were full of humour, and 'Valse Noble' had the right degree of skittishness.

The individual pieces weren't simply treated in isolation. There was continuity, as when the upward-reaching 'Chiarina', Schumann's portrait of the young Clara, led naturally into the yearning 'Chopin', and there was contrast, with the rhythmically complex introversion of 'Eusebius' followed by a boldly capricious 'Florestan'.

When, finally, it was time for Schumann's 'League of David' to march against the Philistines, rhythmic ambiguity was finely balanced against forward drive and eagerness, and the end was full of breathless excitement.

As Charles Owen said in his introduction to Chopin's Preludes, Op 28, they add up to an extraordinary journey, and his performance underlined how remarkably avant-garde they can sound for their date. Each is a self-contained miniature in its own right, but they also gain from being heard as a set, moving, as they do, through all the major and minor keys, though in a different sequence from J S Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. From the mysterious, strange No 2 to the well-known, mazurka-like No 7; the dark/bright contrast of Nos 9 and 10; the athletic No 12; No 13, pre-echoing Chopin's Barcarolle in its accompanying figures; the insistent pulsing of the so-called 'Raindrop' Prelude, No 15; the gently glittering No 23, and the distraught final prelude, each was brought vividly to life. An extraordinary journey, indeed.

Copyright © 26 July 2022 Mike Wheeler,
Derby UK






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