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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Ian Hobson and John Melby

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews two new releases of Chopin’s works recorded by pianist Ian Hobson and the electronic music of John Melby, recorded by the Polish National Radio Orchestra and guests.

CHOPIN: Rondo in c minor, op. 1; Five Early Polonaises without opus number; Variations on Der Schweizerbub; Nocturne in e minor, op. 72/1 (posthumously published); Three Éccosaises, op. 72/3; Funeral March in c minor, op. 72/1; Souvenir de Paganini (Variations in A); Four early Mazurkas without opus number; Rondeau à la Mazur in F, op. 5. Ian Hobson, piano  Zephyr 132-09.

CHOPIN: Sonata No. 1 in c minor, op. 4;  Three Polonaises (posthumously published), op. 71;  Rondo in C (posthumous), op. 73; Contredanse and two Waltzes without opus numbers; Variations on La ci darem la mano from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (solo piano version), op. 2.  Ian Hobson, piano.  Zephyr 133-09.

Chopin the Complete Works Volume 2It was Chopin’s variations on the duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which have come down to us in two versions (one for piano alone, one for piano and orchestra), that prompted Robert Schumann’s salutation, “Hats off, gentlemen—a genius!”  That set of variations was part of a portfolio Chopin had submitted to a Paris publisher at the beginning of his career; the publisher was apparently uninterested in a Sonata in c minor (now known as op. 4), but decided to bring the sonata out once Chopin had become a familiar figure on the musical scene.  Pianists who exclude this work, which obviously doesn’t measure up against the subsequent b-flat minor and b-minor Sonatas, from their repertory are acting with the composer’s full authority: Chopin’s reaction to the publisher’s announcement was anger, and he refused to read the proofs.

On the other hand, there is the e-minor Nocturne, sometimes designated as part of op. 72, with an arpeggiated left-hand ostinato accompaniment and a haunting wisp of melody perhaps less floridly embellished than Chopin’s other works in this genre.  It was published a few years after Chopin’s death and is thought to be an early work—-but this four-pager is a work of greater depth of feeling and invention than the first sonata.  If it is an early work, it is the work of a composer who has fully found his own voice. 

Ian Hobson begins his complete Chopin cycle with as sensitive a reading of the first sonata as anyone could wish, the composer’s own verdict on his maiden effort notwithstanding.  It owes a great deal to the earlier works of pianist-composers like Moscheles and Field.  Hobson’s concern is with Chopin at the place, artistically, where he was at the time he wrote the sonata.  In the e-minor Nocturne, Hobson applies just the right amount of passion and nuance, getting an appropriate pianissimo shading justly associated with the Polish composer—though he does not give the final E-major chord time to die away.  A pleasant surprise is the opus 1 Rondo in c minor, which gives an intimation of the eloquent melodist-to-come. 

 Inevitably, Hobson’s Chopin cycle will invite comparison with that of Garrick Ohlsson, which encompassed not just the solo pieces but all the works for piano and orchestra, the songs and the works for piano and other instruments.  There’s no indication if Hobson is about to do the same.


JOHN MELBY: Concerto for Computer and Orchestra (1987). Joel Eric Suben conducting the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra.  Concerto for Violin, Piano and Computer (2008). Minghuan Xu, violin and Winston Choi, piano.  Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Computer (2006). Winston Choi, piano.  Albany 1124.

John Melby Concerto for Computer and OrchestraJohn Melby is a 68-year-old emeritus professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  He was there for nearly of a quarter of a century, after having taught at West Chester University for a couple of years.  Prior to that, Melby acquired all the requisite academic pedigrees (including study at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute, two Master’s degrees and a Princeton Ph.D.).  Among his teachers were George Crumb (at the University of Pennsylvania) and Milton Babbitt. 

Melby is an academic composer and, for the most part, can be mistaken for no other — even though he has spent the last twelve years in “retirement”.  The 1987 Concerto, which he says is designed according to the pattern of the late Romantic piano concerto (complete with a cadenza — perhaps the cadenza included in this recording is a bit too long), is probably the most successful work on the disc.  The computer dominates the orchestra; Melby’s computer seems to have a limited range of timbre, but now and then there are flashes of a composer who can make atonalism and orchestral color work together.  One wishes that Dr. Melby would apply himself, in advancing age, to writing a purely orchestral work. 

The more recent Concerto for Violin, Piano and Computer is full of the same mixed messages of eloquence and sensationalism.  The musical fabric is atonal, and the sound tends to coarseness even when the computer is silent, even though—as in the Concerto for Computer and Orchestra—there are hints of lyricism reminiscent of Berg.

The Concerto for Piano and Synthesizer probably looks marvelous on paper; as to the sound, one is reminded of some not-quotable remarks by George Szell on Stravinsky’s Webernesque Movements for Piano and Orchestra.  The Stravinsky, in the opinion of this reviewer, is in many ways a much easier piece to take.  Again, it would be an alluring prospect to see Dr. Melby tackle a purely orchestral canvass, where musical line — tonal or not — is more important than sound-manipulation.