S&H Recital Review

BEETHOVEN Sonata Op.90 BRAHMS Sonata Op.5 Ashley Wass (piano) The BBC Radio 3 Lunch Time Concert, Wigmore Hall, 22 January 2001

Playing without music, Ashley Wass showed that he has developed into a mature, thoughtful 'musicians' pianist'. He judged the Wigmore Hall acoustics perfectly in his dynamic range, pedalling clarity and beautiful tone quality. Wass gave an impression that having assimilated the scores completely, he was thinking and feeling these two sonatas whilst performing them. It made for a fulfilling hour's music, with a palpable silence from his listeners in the hall contributing to what will have been a memorable broadcast at home, as balanced from the BBC's five microphones.

The E minor sonata of Beethoven (1814) is one of those smaller, concentrated middle period works (this one in two contrasted movements) which are more often encountered in complete cycles than chosen on their own. Its first movement requires meaningful juxtapositions of extreme contrasts; the second a relaxed melodic rondo which is Schubertian in feeling, both perfectly realised here.

That was a perfect preparation for tackling the Everest of the young Brahms' huge five movement F minor sonata of 1853, his largest solo keyboard composition. The Allegro maestoso took us straight into a world of high drama, the following song like slow movement a perfect foil, evoking sensitive phasing from Wass. Calum MacDonald provided the full analysis in the free leaflet; he drew our attention to 'thunderous octave writing' in the central scherzo, but Ashley Wass appeared to take a different view, perhaps taking a long view and wanting to allow some respite in the sonata's centre. He emphasised the scherzo's dance quality with a light touch and an almost Viennese waltz rhythmic lift, with fleet figuration nearer to a Mendelssohn scherzo. This prepared us better, perhaps, for the extraordinary funeral march, in which MacDonald compared Brahms' skill in transferring orchestral sonority to the keyboard with that of Alkan. (This made me ponder whether anyone had attempted to orchestrate this great sonata, as Schoenberg had done for one of the piano quartets, with rather quaint results?)

Afterwards we were whirled into the journey from dark to light of the finale, negotiated with confidence and racing with aplomb to an uplifting conclusion. Even those of us who had travelled far to the Wigmore Hall departed without any feeling that an hour of music had been short measure.

Peter Grahame Woolf

FRANCK Piano Works
Ashley Wass
Naxos Laureate Series 8.554484 [76 mins.] * * * *
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Ashley Wass was the first British winner of the triennial World Piano Competition (London 1997) and he has chosen Cesar Franck's piano music for his debut CD. The early Églogue Op 3 and Caprice Op 5 (both are rarely played pieces from 1843) date from his period as a virtuoso pianist, which was however not greatly successful. From 1870, he devoted himself to composition and returned to writing for the piano in his last years. Here we have his major works for the piano from the 1880s, both of which reflect his career as an organist in their texture and general style. The Prélude, Chorale & Fugue and Prélude, Aria & Finale are important works, which maintain a tenuous place in the repertoire, though they are heard less often nowadays.

Wass gives fluent accounts of both, and his choice is auspicious in its avoidance of more popular and over-recorded music. His playing is fluent and preserves a beautiful tone, reinforcing my good impression upon hearing him live at a recital in the prestigious Wallace Collection recital series. He shows himself here as a serious minded pianist, who has much to offer. His future will be watched with interest and this debut CD is well worth acquiring. (PGW)

See also review by Rob Barnett

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