On Wednesday night at the Wigmore Hall, the familiar piano became a source of aural wonders. Sounds emerged from that dignified black box marked “Steinway” that seemed to belong more to a forest at night, or a temple hung with tiny prayer bells.
The man who produced these wonders was Rolf Hind, perhaps the most delicate-fingered of all the pianists who specialise in modern music. He was like a magician, reaching inside the piano (which had already been altered in various ways) to change its sound. Sometimes, he stroked the keys to make the ivories rattle like cicadas, sometimes he used the pedals to conjure a vast echoing space. In Rerendered, a piece by the Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen, the magician was joined by two assistants, who reached into the piano’s innards. The fact we couldn’t see what these inscrutable helpers were doing magnified the sense of witnessing some strange ritual.
This was engrossing, but after a while I started to long for some musical substance, and Steen-Anderson’s parade of muffled thuds and twangs didn’t provide it. Hind’s own Thus Have I Heard, based on a 9th-century Buddhist scripture, was more satisfying. The delicate bell-like sounds were anchored by a melodic line of vaguely Eastern modality, and the way these sounds gradually retreated into silence was projected by Hind with spell-binding concentration.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the platform, a second Steinway waited. It was there in readiness for the other two pieces, which needed nothing more than a normal piano, played in the usual way. Ten Studies by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen was a marvel of compression, each little two-minute miniature summoning a whole world of feeling. Here and there amidst the furious virtuoso flurries a ghost of the past would rise up, like the echo of Chopin in study no 7, and Hind was alert to all these subtleties.
Most serious and weighty of all was Maxwell Davies’s First Sonata of 1981. Hind offered this in place of the hoped-for 2nd Sonata, which sadly Maxwell Davies didn’t live to complete, and he played it with burning conviction and superb clarity. One could feel the way certain ideas kept recurring with increasing energy, as if struggling to find their ideal shape. But despite Hind’s eloquence, the music’s complexity ultimately felt self-defeating; and overall the concert, despite its incidental wonders, seemed too disparate to be really satisfying.