It’s pretty rare for a major concert hall to program more than ten minutes of music that was composed post-1900, and it’s even rarer to see an entire program of music that was composed post-1900. But at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall Monday evening, that’s exactly what the audience was treated to, courtesy of pianist Nicolas Hodges. Mr. Hodges, a versatile British musician, performed works from the turn of the 20th century and the turn of the 21st century. Mr. Hodges’s resumé of “modern” music is extensive, including his performance of the première of Thomas Adès's In Seven Days in London in 2008, but he is also known for his interpretations of Classical and Romantic composers. Mr. Hodges has a quiet and thoughtful presence at the keyboard – somewhat uncertain at times, but it’s always appreciated when a pianist seems to lend gravity to even the most minute details in the score. Sensitivity will always prevail over showiness in my book.

© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve

The bulk of Mr. Hodges's recital was comprised of Debussy's two books of Études, which the French composer wrote in 1915, three years before his death. The twelve technical and structural studies were dedicated to the memory of Chopin, whose own 24 Études are a milestone for any piano player. Debussy's Études, however academic or formal they may be, still exude the rippling, modal tendencies of Debussy's style. The first étude, “Pour les cinq doigts – d'après Monsieur Czerny”, begins with a simple repeated “do re mi fa sol fa mi re do”, much in the manner of an elementary Czerny étude. But gradually Debussyste “mistakes” are interspersed with these ascending and descending five notes. The theme becomes distorted and eventually mutates into something else entirely. Mr. Hodges’s execution of this and the other eleven Études was determined, detached, and often brilliant. Occasionally his hands, as they hopped from one end of the keyboard to the other, moved faster than the split-second of time it took for the sounds to reach my ears, so I could almost guess which notes were coming next. But Mr. Hodges captured perfectly the sensation of tumbling – falling, even – in an elegant fashion. Debussy’s music has always reminded me of the way light splits through a glass prism in unexpected multiplications and refractions; it doesn’t matter so much where the light lands if you focus instead on the light itself.

The other three works possessed a similarly studious feel, though the stumbling jumbles of notes were as surprising and “modern”-sounding as the Études. In addition to the Debussy, Mr. Hodges performed Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni’s Giga, bolero e variazione (after Mozart) from Book III of An die Jugend, another piece written in the early 20th century. This fragment from the four-volume collection An die Jugend (dedicated to the students of Busoni’s master class) was composed in a structurally classical style, with hints of Romanticism and Modernism gleaming through. Mr. Hodges’s virtuosity shone impressively in this piece, as well as during his interpretation of American icon Elliott Carter’s Two Thoughts About the Piano of 2005. Carter's meandering piece contains jagged moments, sustained harmonies, harshly accented notes, and the sort of frantic roving across the keyboard seen in Debussy’s Études. Mr. Hodges blew me away (as well as the rest of the audience, judging by their enthusiastic applause) with his patience, control, and truly astounding ending.

The most intriguing part of the evening arrived in the form of the US première of Harrison Birtwistle’s 2012 Gigue Machine. As with the other works on the program, this piece was repetitious, and stylistically somewhat Baroque or Classical in nature. But Birtwistle, one of the foremost living composers, has managed to create a completely unique sound world with Gigue Machine. The questioning phrases and overlapping punctures of sound superseded each other in an almost unfathomably complex manner. Mr. Hodges was as usual thoughtful and almost tentative about this music, which is best described as methodical and vaguely distressing, like a dentist appointment. And what could be a greater triumph for a pianist than producing such an enjoyable experience out of music that can be compared to a dentist appointment?

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