Liam Wooding – Reflections and Connections at Woburn’s St.Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:

DOUGLAS LILBURN – Sonata for Piano in F-sharp Minor (1939)
STUART GREENBAUM – Remote Connection (2021)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Sonata for Piano in C-sharp Minor Op.27. No.2 “Moonlight”
DUKE ELLINGTON – Reflections in D (1953)
CLAUDE DEBUSSY – Images, Book 1 (1905)
1. Reflects dans l’eau  2. Hommage a Rameau  3. Mouvement
JOHN ADAMS – Phrygian Gates (1977)

Liam Wooding (piano)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Tuesday, 27th July 2021

Music today has a lot to thank Franz (Ferenc) Liszt for. Among his achievements throughout a life devoted to performing, composing, teaching, promoting, and collegially supporting and encouraging the art-form is his single-handed invention of the phenomenon we know today as “the piano recital”. On June 9th,1840, in London at Hanover Square, Liszt gave the first of two London concerts that were advertised as “recitals”, the first documented occasion on which the word “recital” had been used in describing a musical event (he had previously called his solo concerts “soliloquies”). He had already turned the idea of a concert as was then known on its head, by being the only performer, by the music presenting overall “themes” instead of being hotch-potch collections of unrelated items, and by turning the piano to its side so audiences could see the performer better and the instrument could with its lid opened, project the music more clearly.

How long it might have taken for others to evolve a similar kind of presentation without Liszt will never be known – as with most revolutionary developments in all human endeavour, surprise seems to be a regular and necessary component, one which Liszt certainly utilised at the outset of his stellar, if relatively brief, performing career. Since then, little has radically changed (as one might thankfully observe!), the “piano recital” at its best continuing to deliver some of the purest, most unadulterated music-listening experiences available to audiences anywhere. Liszt would have undoubtedly poured his whole being into such presentations to overwhelming effect – and something of that directly-wrought, straight-from-the-shoulder essence of committed performance and recreativity freely emanated from pianist Liam Wooding’s engaging musical personality in St Mark’s Church, Woburn over the course of an evening’s music-making!

The pianist, relaxedly sporting a colourful loose-fitting top which straightway suggested he might be on holiday, rather than “at work”, welcomed us by way of providing a context for the occasion, telling us that this was the “last stop” stop of a ten-venue tour of the country, which was another way of saying that he’d gotten to know the pieces well!  He didn’t “announce” each piece individually (his own, simply-expressed, and to-the-point programme notes told us all we needed to know as an introduction to each item), merely informing us that there would be an interval after the Beethoven Sonata. The rest he would obviously be expressing via the music!

First up was the remarkable 1939 Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor by Douglas Lilburn. In Wooding’s hands the music’s opening Lento readily burgeoned with emotional impulses amid evocations of familiar landscapes, to my ears a prophetic precursor in sound and intent of the forces that produced the remarkable flowering of the performing arts in this country over a decade hence. Throughout, the music freely alternated between purposeful rhythmic structure and spontaneously-evolving spaces, allowing impulses, gesturings and tones to play, interact and resonate.  With playing as committed and passionate as here from Wooding, I thought these full-toned utterances beautifully defined by dint of contrast the intensities of their opposites, such as found in the magically withdrawn sequences leading to the brief but achingly lyrical coda to the movement.

The Theme-and-Variations second movement began with a chant-like invocation which readily bore fruit, elaborating on the simple mantra both quizzically and excitably – a wonderful scherzando variation contained that characteristic Lilburn rhythmic snap, while a further one exuded bumptious, angular qualities, markedly contrasting with a subsequent show of keyboard brilliance! – in response, a bell-like sequence prettily danced its approval. Came a more sober minor-key-change, filled with nostalgia, the composer listening to his world with deeply-moving feeling, before activation once again by a running figure, one insouciantly inventive! – a brief presto display of bravado and the journey was finished – obviously, a significant work still needing to come into its own, if here given the kind of advocacy that makes such things happen!

Australian composer Stuart Greenbaum’s freshly-conceived (2021) Remote Connection, was written for Wooding, the piece a response by the composer to the pandemic privations of 2020, a year of “remote connection” for many people. While directly evoking the technical manifestations of various electronic connecting devices at the start, the music also grew a wider realm of human interaction and emotional response to isolation and loneliness. Throughout, Wooding patiently brought out the work’s contrastings of the machine-like figures with long-held, deep-breathing chords, the more animated figures seeming to develop anxieties of their own in places, gesturings beset by impatience and insistence amid the different variants of touchingly human response. The jazzy, almost boogie-woogie trajectories at the end seemed almost nihilistic in their exuberance and exhilaration, perhaps speaking for desperate people tempted into doing desperate things…..

Wooding took us then to a different age’s manifestation of human isolation and loneliness, via Beethoven’s renowned “Moonlight” Sonata, one, of course, forever “coloured” by the famous contemporary description of the first movement’s undulations as resembling moonlight on lake waters, a remark which conveniently passed over the agitated violence of the final movement’s character. In his notes Wooding very properly quoted (and agreed with) fellow-pianist Michael Houstoun’s thoughts on the work as “relentlessly dark” and “violently black”, although here, his playing of the eponymous first movement seemed to me strangely contained to the point of inhibition, scarcely hinting at any deeper, darker undercurrents – an adagio that I thought needed more breadth, and a sostenuto that wanted more depth and blackness of tone.

Oddly enough these things manifested themselves readily In the two movements that followed – an Allegretto “spooked” by some of its own phrase-endings, and a Presto agitato that was just that! The latter movement I thought took time to “settle”, with the first couple of upward runs slightly muddying the two concluding notes’ whiplash sforzando effect, but the rest were most excitingly and (in one instance towards the end) even wildly brought off. After such coruscations an interval seemed like an excellent idea!

We came back to a different world, one of dreamily impressionist sounds emanating firstly from Duke Ellington’s appropriately-titled piece Reflections in D, many of whose familiar, jazzily-tinted gesturings may well have been “invented” by this same composer. In his programme note Wooding told us that an idea of “pairing” Ellington’s work with that of another composer, Claude Debussy, came from the work of an American pianist and composer, Timo Andres, who made video recordings during the pandemic underlining the links between Debussy’s works and Ellington’s material. An example was straightaway forthcoming – the seamless “running together” of the latter’s Reflections in D with Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau from Book 1 of Images, clearly demonstrating “the Duke’s” drawing from Debussy’s work, with whole phrases from the former’s piece seeming to readily align themselves with the latter’s delicately impressionist-sounding evocations.

Both pieces enchanted by turns, Wooding’s superbly-crafted playing encapsulating the “movement of stillness” world conveyed by the play of light upon watery surfaces and the disruptive animations of the fountain’s sparkling turbulence, with a nostalgic note at the end suggesting a farewell of sorts, perhaps one to the day via a sunset, or to a friend or lover in the wake of a passionate encounter…..

I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by the second Image, Hommage à Rameau, looking in vain for a reference to some motivic quotation from the earlier composer’s music, and finally figuring out that the piece is far more abstract, any such connection being expressed by the use of a solemn and serious Sarabande (a processional dance-form often used by Baroque composers to express significant and meaningful ideas and feelings). Debussy was one of the editors of a planned complete Rameau Edition, and was working on the latter’s opera Les Fêtes de Polymnie when he wrote the first Book of Images. Here, he seemed to me to awaken “ghosts” from the past, whole entourages of bygone grandeur made to live again, Wooding’s resonant playing allowing us full access to the glory and enduring resonance of one composer’s tribute to another.

What a contrast with the following Mouvement, here, the pianist’s playing brilliantly embodying the music’s title, building the crescendo leading up to the ebulliently-sounded fanfare motif, and taking us on a mercurial harmonic exploration throughout the piece’s central panoplies of sound before whirly-gigging us on to a feathery-fingered conclusion.

And so we were brought to the evening’s final item, John Adams’ monumentally self-defining minimalist work “Phrygian Gates” (the composer called it his true “Opus 1” as representing his first “mature composition” exhibiting a “personal style”. I had never heard this particular piece before (Wooding voiced the view that the work’s performances on his tour were the first heard in this country), so it was, for me, an absorbing journey of discovery, over twenty minutes of mesmeric repeated-note rhythmic and harmonic exploration which cycled its way through six of the twelve key-centres of the “circle of fifths” on a more-or-less nonstop tour.

Adams has stated that the piece requires a pianist of considerable physical endurance and sustaining capabilities, and Wooding seemed to fulfil those criteria to an astounding degree – I could detect no sign of flagging of either energy or concentration throughout the work’s entire span, and marvelled at what seemed like his complete identification with and focus upon the music’s myriad variation of impulse, colour and intensity, in places mesmeric scintillations of delicate light-and shade, while in others harrowing, agitated hammerings of dark purpose!  A “proper” musician would, as a listener, have doubtless registered the piece’s on-going technicalities of sequence and change and perhaps even predicted what was to follow, whereas my untrained sensibilities revelled in the frisson created by so many unexpected moments of stimulation, and relished to the full the “epic” experience of the work’s scale and outreach.

Afterwards I reflected on my Middle C colleague Anne French’s single comment regarding the same recital she had attended in Wellington a few days before, at St.Andrew’s – mindful of my plans to attend this concert and not wanting to unduly influence my reaction, all she conveyed to me by way of her impression of Liam Wooding’s playing was “Wow!” All I can say by way of appropriate response is “Absolutely fair comment!”

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