Concert review: Steven Spooner unlocks secrets to a piano's soul

Pianist Steven Spooner. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF STEVEN SPOONER
Pianist Steven Spooner. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF STEVEN SPOONER

The piano is an instrument with enormous range, possessing the capabilities of an orchestra to exploit every colour, mood and nuance of musical expression. Compositions for piano are thus like canvases on which every variety of paint and pastel is applied by a composer to his own fancy.

This recital, Memories & Postcards, by American pianist Steven Spooner at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Wednesday, was a masterclass in how a piano can conjure up images of landscapes and portraiture for the ears like a palette and paintbrush can for the eyes.

Claude Debussy wrote his 24 Preludes before appending evocative French titles to each, inspired by some literary quote or scenery (hence the reference to postcards here). With his deft use of pedalling and a variegated touch, watching and listening to the First Book of 12 Preludes unfold in Spooner's hands was pleasure itself.

Even in the simple group of sustained chords in the opening Dances Of Delphi, gentle echoes resounded just long enough before the next notes appeared. There was none of the muddiness associated with amateur musings, but the bell-like clarity when pedals unlock secrets to a piano's soul.

His characterisations of each successive number were gripping and varied according to the inherent moods. There was an astonishing sequence which began with the swirling tarantella rhythm of The Hills Of Anacapri, followed by bleakness and desolation in Footsteps In The Snow before erupting into the storm of What The West Wind Saw, Debussy's most violent piece bar none.

And before one could catch one's breath, the utter simplicity of Girl With The Flaxen Hair descended like angel dust. What contrasts provided by the crashing chords in The Engulfed Cathedral and the book's close with the impishness of Puck's Dance and dixieland swagger of Minstrels, were all captured with much vividness.

The second half began with four popular but diverse Schubert songs transcribed by Franz Liszt. The art of the transcriber is akin to that of an alchemist, where something like base metal is turned into gold. Not that any of Schubert's lieder is lead, but with Liszt's Midas touch, miracles do occur.

Voice and piano become unity in the frequent crossing of hands of Wohin? (Whither) and lovely echoing effects in Standchen (Serenade). Ferocious repeated octaves define The Erl King, and Spooner's blistering account was worth the while just to watch him sweat.

Like the pianists of the fabled Golden Age, Spooner was prey to composition and transcription himself. Three of his virtuoso etudes brought down the house. The first was a toccata a la Martha Argerich, all of flying fingers and hot-blooded Latino passion. The second and longest was My Funny Valentine in the ruminative bluesy manner of Keith Jarrett, while the last was a speculation on how Vladimir Horowitz might have interpreted We Are The Champions by Queen.

Late old Volodya might disagree but there was no doubt that Spooner's two encores were Horowitz classics, Chopin's A Flat Major Waltz (Op.69 No.1), appropriately entitled L'Adieu (Farewell) and the delectable Scarlatti Sonata In D Minor. From the applause and accolades he received, the pianist had done his idol proud.