Concert review: Kenneth Hamilton's piano fantasies are a treat

Attending a performance by Scottish pianist Kenneth Hamilton is like indulging in a blind taste-test. You never know what you'll be getting but your senses are in for a treat as your musical palate is taken on a journey of discovery. His informal introduction to each work is always littered with interesting bites of information and wit, and his warm candour an open invitation to enjoy the concert.

The Fantasy was a favourite genre of composer-pianists of the past, from Franz Liszt to Earl Wild, and was the central theme of Hamilton's 10th recital here, held at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Sunday.

While later composers used it as a medium for thematic metamorphoses of popular tunes during their time, it was merely a loose term assigned to works of an improvisatory nature.

While Chopin often associated the Polonaise with characteristics of the military, the Polish national dance was in fact a brisk processional walk. Hamilton approached the composer's Polonaise Fantasy Op. 61 from this angle sans the extravagance of unnecessary lingering. Applying the sparsest of pedals in the opening section, he captured the contradictory nature of the work brilliantly, balancing Chopin's Polish heroic gestures with romantic melancholy. Unlike his other Polonaises, the fantasy incorporates the dance rhythm in a quasi Nocturne, with only hints of his patriotism emerging later.

Schumann's Fantasy Op. 17 was a reflection of the composer's neurotic nature with its obsessive pondering and unbearable sadness. Set in three movements, the work quotes themes from Clara Wieck and also from Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte. The nervous whirlwind of the opening gesture was put to good measure by Hamilton, and he created a sense of unease throughout the work as it hovered anxiously by subtly varying the degree of desynchronisation in syncopated rhythms.

Despite it being the greatest of Schumann's works for the piano, pianists shy away from performing it in public, with the frenetic leaps in the coda of the second movement once thought of as unplayable. While Hamilton's execution was not without slips and missed notes, even great pianists such as Richter and Horowitz have fallen victim to that notorious passage.

The fragmented nature of Fantasies was none more evident than in Beethoven's Fantasy Op. 77, composed in 1809 during the height of his hardship and struggle with increasing deafness. He had lamented in a letter to his publisher than he was suffering from a lack of inspiration, which explains the appearance of unrelated themes in the work punctuated by bouts of musical tantrum. It was definitely not one of the composer's best works, and gave an impression of Beethoven barnstorming for ideas at the piano.

There were hints of Beethoven's influence in Mendelssohn's Fantasy on The Last Rose Of Summer Op. 15, with its angular variations and deviation away from thematic material. Based on the poems by Irish poet Thomas Moore, the music set was actually that of the traditional Irish tune Aislean an Oigfear, and the saccharine effect of its harmonies crafted masterfully under Hamilton's hands.

Franz Liszt often adopted popular tunes in his composition, and would offer up a highly virtuosic and outrageous concert version of it in his concerts. The two paraphrases programmed could not be more different; while Verdi's opera Rigoletto was immensely well-known, Handel's Almira was a relatively ignored work by the English composer.

Hamilton showed he was equally competent at creating a musical conversation with both works, and the sonorous opening chords of the Almira fantasy was matched by his stunning left hand octave technique that Liszt was so fond of. The way he nonchalantly tossed off the ad lib filigree in the Rigoletto paraphrase sounded so spontaneous one could be forgiven for not realising that they were actual notated writing.

He closed the recital with a poignant moment, offering as an encore the Chorale and Fugue by his late teacher Ronald Stevenson who died last week.

stlife@sph.com.sg