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March 26, 2007

At the Sign of the Hedgehog: Piano Recital by Tessa Uys at the Red Hedgehog

Posted by David Conway

Piano Recital
by Tessa Uys
at the Red Hedgehog
255/257 Archway Road
London N6 5BS
Sunday 25th March 2007

I recall, I think from Peter Latham's old "Master Musicians" biography of Brahms, a silhouette of the portly, bearded composer stomping along, cigar clenched in mouth, accompanied by a small hedgehog. The reference is to the Viennese inn "der rote Igel" ("The Red Hedgehog") where Brahms lunched (and drank) every day. The modern incarnation of this establishment near the top of the Archway Road would be hard work to reach on foot from most parts of London - although those intrepid enough to do so can receive a 2 "green travel" discount on concert tickets, also awarded to those arriving by bicycle or "low-emission vehicles". There seems no process of checking claims for this remission, but no one could wish to take unfair advantage, I hope, of this most charming of green initiatives.

Amongst the Hedgehog's initiatives has been a series of Sunday morning recitals, given by some high-calibre pianists, including Yonty Solomon, Peter Donohoe and Piers Lane. This week it was the turn of the South-African born, but London-resident Tessa Uys, whose varied programme reached from J. S. Bach to the contemporary composer John McCabe.

The Hedgehog provides an intimate venue. The proxemics are more suggestive of a Schubertiade than a concert-hall recital - there were perhaps thirty of us in the audience, but the room could not take I think much more than fifty. The instrument is a Yamaha grand with a brilliant but perhaps slightly hard tone for the ambience, placing an important responsibility on the performer to keep it in good behaviour. There are other surprises specific to the venue - the sudden buzzing of the freezer behind the bar between two items was swiftly brought under control - but overall it is both welcoming and engaging; a valuable resource for a part of London where there are doubtless many willing concert-goers within a close radius (Highgate, Hampstead, Muswell Hill, Crouch End) but surprisingly few locations to meet potential demand.

Miss Uys began wisely with two Bach keyboard transcriptions, one "by" (of a movement from a Marcello oboe concerto), and one "of" (Kempff's version of the Siciliano of Bach's G minor flute sonata). These gently drew and tempered the audience into an appreciative unit. The Haydn B minor sonata which followed was of more stirring stuff, a nice piece of Sturm und Drang. Written about 1776, it is a debated point whether this piece was intended by Haydn for the harpsichord or the forte-piano; the score carries no dynamic indications, which the composer was to use in later publications to indicate that he had the new instrument in mind, but the music is inherently set up to enable dramatic contrasts between soft and loud, chords and melody, and its different registers. Miss Uys (and the Yamaha) were able to articulate these very clearly - perhaps more so than Haydn's instrument would have done, but I am sure he would have been delighted with this very crisp rendition.

Perhaps the E minor Sonata (op. 90) of Beethoven did not come off so well. This is an almost Schubertian piece in its sonority and its waywardness; the gear changes in the first of its two movements are disconcerting and the piece might have benefited from a higher level of dramatisation, emphasising rather than reconciling these discontinuities.

In the second half a touching performance of Schumann's Kinderszenen was followed by a novelty, McCabe's op. 22 Variations. The recalcitrant theme of this brief work is an almost autistic sequence of notes within a short compass, with a stubborn rhythm, embedded in a filigree of high-register contrast which itself becomes part of the material to be varied. The ride is bumpy but exhilarating, with the central sections veering towards jazz before the music subsides in a sulk.

The recital ended with an old war-horse, but a favourite of mine, Liszt's "legend", St. Francis of Assisi Walking on the Water. And it is indeed a legend - the listener "reads" the story clearly, with the simple but heroic theme of the Saint launched out on a terrifying storm of wind and waves before returning safely with an uttered prayer. In anyone's hands but Liszt's this would have been preposterous - a return to the mindless "poetic" fantasies of the now-forgotten early romantic virtuosi like Kalkbrenner or Vogler, who would extemporise topics such as "A Voyage down the Rhine during a Thunderstorm" or "The Last Judgement". But Liszt - and Miss Uys - brought it all off perfectly, with total commitment and a command of all the resources of the keyboard; a heroic ending to a most enjoyable recital.

We were treated as an encore to a poignant Scarlatti sonata, the one that always reminds me of a hunting party lost in a deep forest - one which echoed in our minds as we decanted into a Sunday lunchtime on the Archway Road and set off towards our bicycles, Priuses, or, in my case, a rather battered Renault Clio.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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