Diedre Irons – piano pleasures at Waikanae


– presented by the Waikanae Music Society Inc.

BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata in C Op.2 No.3

CHOPIN – 2 Nocturnes Op.27 / Fantasy in F Minor

WHITEHEAD – Tūmanako: Journey through an unknown landscape

RAVEL – Le Tombeau de Couperin

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 19th June 2011

To describe Diedre Irons’ piano playing as “thoroughly engaging” might seem to some too much of an all-purpose, over-generalized comment, out-of-step with more serious analysis of the kind one associates with a “proper” review. However, I think this quality of engagement is intrinsic to any discussion of a musician’s work as a performer in front of an audience. Irons seems incapable of playing a mechanical or dissociated phrase, so that for me it seems to all flow like life-blood, activating and sustaining for the listener whole worlds of feelings, ideas, impulses and actions.

In my ideal world I would want to hear Diedre Irons play all the Beethoven piano sonatas – I know that the great Rachmaninov once said that he didn’t play many of these works because “the Beethoven sonatas contain everything, and no one pianist can play everything”…..but I’ve often thanked my lucky stars that musicians such as Schnabel, Kempff, Arrau, and Barenboim (and, of course, our own Michael Houstoun), to name but a few, have ignored Rachmaninov’s dictum and performed them all, both in public and on record. Yes, Rachmaninov was right, in the sense that, as Artur Schnabel famously said, “These are works that are better than can ever be played”, and any pianist who essays the complete set of them has to cover an enormous technical, intellectual and emotional range of responses. But it can be done most rewardingly, and on the evidence of Irons’ playing for us the delicious C Major Op.2 No.3 Sonata with what seemed like a comprehensive grasp of the work’s expressive possibilities, I would welcome hearing more from her – in fact, as many as she wants to play.

Within just a few measures of the music’s opening, Irons had generously given us as many shades of expression as would a gifted Shakespearean actor on stage in one of the plays. Each note took on a meaning of its own, the phrases enlivened, the paragraphs taking us on a journey whose course featured many details of continuity and contrast, as befitted the work of a young, and wanting-to-impress composer. Irons brought forth warm, enthusiastic accents rather than overtly muscular contrasts, so that the music often smiled, and the minor-key exertions sallied forth beneath a firm, but elastic touch. Towards the end of the movement, from the recitative-like passages came an adroitly-pedalled foretaste of both the Tempest and Waldstein Sonatas, the pianist bringing out the work’s connections within a more widely-spanned context in a totally natural and unforced way.

The remainder of the sonata similarly enchanted us – a guarded, somewhat understated second-movement opening grew towards a marriage of delicacy and resonance, the right-handed figurations dancing over the step-wise columns rising from the bass regions; while Irons nicely contrasted the third movement’s interplay of mischievous and vertiginous trajectories with those wonderfully rolling arpeggiations in the trio. Contrast was also the order of the day for the finale, the gentle playfulness of Irons’ delivery of the opening a perfect foil for the grand and heroic second subject – a case of humor and delicacy alternating with bigger-boned statements, culminating in a teasing coda and a grand-slam final payoff!

Chopin’s two Op.27 Nocturnes which followed gave an impression of being two different “takes” of a similar view, a night-and-day contrast, for example, the C-sharp Minor all half-lit suggestiveness under Irons’ fingers, a shade exotic in its lyrical character, the opening sharply brought into focus with urgent toccata-like chordings, whose impulses of energy dissipate almost as rapidly as they rise up, allowing a “homecoming” coda of great beauty to steal in over the final bars. No such exoticisms trouble the second Nocturne in D-flat, whose more overly vocal lines describe an archway of melodic beauty and intensity, echoed by a “dying fall” as affecting in its way as its companion’s. Both works were here brought to life, not only as companions but as entities in themselves.

Insightful programming had the great Fantasy in F Minor placed after the two Nocturnes, with the audience taking up its cue and allowing the pianist an unbroken path towards the new work’s first sounds – the expectant tread of the opening in keeping with the composer’s intention of taking his listeners to the heart of a world of spontaneously-conceived feeling and incident. Very much like a Polish version of the Hungarian “lassu” at the beginning, the Fantasy then sweeps into and through episodes of vivid storytelling, Irons revelling in particular episodes such as the “storm and stress” arpeggiated flourishes, some magical arabesques of transformation, and then a hymn-like, almost devotional rapture, the whole quite Lisztian in its range and scope, though still Chopinesque in accent throughout.

I’d heard Gillian Whitehead’s Tūmanako: Journey through an unknown landscape on a previous occasion, at the “Sounztender” concert in May of last year, played by the same pianist. In a concert with established classics, the piece took on a different “feeling” for me to what it did on the previous occasion when played alongside some of its contemporaries. This time round the music seemed to me more abstract in effect than before, the result, perhaps, of my bringing some kind of expectation to the performance of the “we’ve heard the sounds – now, how well do they cohere?” variety. At the outset there were vast spaces, created as much by wide leaps between resonating notes as by the frequent silences, from which came various impressions of fleeting encounters, cascades of bitter-sweet arpeggiations, chordal evocations, cries of birds and other nature sounds, both tumbling downwards and taking flight. In places I felt a sense of reverence and an awareness of ritual, a feeling advanced by full-throated, bell-like soundings of things paying a kind of homage to a state of being, and an activation of the spirit.

A different kind of evocation came from Ravel in his Le Tombeau de Couperin, a tribute from one French master to the work of another. It took me a while to get onto the performance’s wavelength, to my surprise – although Irons played the Prelude with suitably motoric impulse, the dynamic terracings for me somehow lacked light and shade, the hall’s lack of resonance perhaps to blame for an ambience more clear-eyed than atmospheric. Only with the deliciously bitter-sweet Forlane did I begin to make connections with it all, increasingly beguiled by the changing faces of the music’s droll, but suggestive “revolve”. Irons gave the Rigadoun’s opening plenty of jack-in-the-box energy, nudging the succeeding trio episode along, with its deliciously “limping” rhythms, before the opening orchestrally crashes back. And nowhere was Ravel’s wistful mix of artifice and feeling more beautifully conveyed by Irons than in the Menuet’s astringent strains, the mask hiding the composer’s true feelings never more apparent. I thought the pianist resisted the blandishments of sheer virtuosity with the concluding Toccata, her rhythmic trajectories instead enabling the piece’s tempo fluctuations to grow out of one another and have a cumulative effect of energy and brilliance.

A Debussy piece to finish help return us to our lives – the audience’s appreciation of and regard for Diedre Irons’ playing was, at the end, a pleasure to join in with.

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