Albert Hall: Nottingham, UK. (2008)

AHREUM HAN Albert Hall, Nottingham. 13th July 2008

Appreciation by David S. Butterworth

I have to confess to a certain notoriety for dozing off during concerts, recitals and even sermons. No such chance on 13th July, when the young Korean girl, Ahreum Han, regaled us with a programme that utterly transcended all expectations. It was clear from the opening bars of Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, S.564, that here was a confidence, a technical assurance and an overall musicality which would increasingly impress through the afternoon. Even most of the beautiful walnut music desk of the Binns console could be appreciated, interrupted as it was by only a little sheet of A5 paper, which might just have been a shopping list. Here was all the technical mastery, rock-steady rhythmic drive – (not without flexibility where appropriate) – and a spot-on synchronization of hands and feet, that made this one of the best performances of the work I have heard for a long time. The Adagio, soloed on the ingeniously selected combination of Solo Bassoon and Orchestral Oboe, was especially notable for the (not easily) managed closing bars, the solo reed being taken over by Bach’s mysteriously plangent chord progressions on Great Opens 2 and 3, where each anguished suspension reminded us almost obsessively that a melancholy streak in Bach’s complex make-up was rarely far from the surface. My only quibble about this Bach performance concerns the not infrequent use of a secondary manual. In many of his fugues, it is easy enough to “drop down” to the Choir (or whatever) for an episode, but far less easy to return to the Great without sounding unduly contrived. Such was the case here. Equally, there seemed little reason to swop manuals in the Toccata. Far from the context of a spiky Rückpositiv in closer proximity to the listener, the best that could be managed here – Choir flutes coupled to Swell fluework – was just too indistinct and mushy to convince.

The Elgar ‘Chanson de Matin’ looked, on paper, to be a strange choice to follow the Bach, but actually it worked well. Again played from memory, I noticed that the little bit of paper had now been folded in half, so it must have meant something! This equally assured performance was distinctly Diapason-based. The Swell Open on the Binns is an especially flexible ingredient in this organ, peculiarly – as it is – on high pressure. Everything fitted around it, and, latterly, the two Solo flutes with Tremulant came as a delicious surprise, not heard like this before, to my knowledge.

For Mendelssohn’s Sonata no. 4 in B flat, Ahreum resorted to music, the whole four movements somehow encapsulated in tiny print onto just two stiff cards! Here was firm, resolute playing throughout, with plenty of drive. Notable were the clarity of the inner part-writing, such as one would expect from a more lightly voiced Classical instrument; and the excellent registrational balance between left and right hand in the 3rd. movement, so that the main thematic material, wherever it may be, was always clearly in evidence. The final bars of the strong fourth movement were expertly placed for maximum effect.

In Bossi’s Scherzo in G minor, Ahreum took meticulous care to produce a kaleidoscopic variety of warm smoothness and gentle tinklings, achieved through an interplay of Swell and Choir Flutes, variously coupled and uncoupled. The first half of the recital concluded with a stunning performance of the Allegro Deciso from Dupré’s ‘Evocation.’ Ahreum’s command of the “Binns Patent Tubular Pneumatic Action” in punishing swathes of fast-repeated notes which were always there and never ‘snatched’ would have made James Jepson’s chest swell with pride! Thunderous passages alternated with more brooding excursions into a land nearer to Cavaille-Coll than I have ever heard here (I shall investigate!) Ian, in his splendid programme note, refers to the “defiantly triumphant conclusion.” Precisely.

After a quite excitable interval (!), two pieces by Karg-Elert fitted in nicely with the 75th. anniversary of the composer’s death (though I admit I am not that easy about the fuss we seem to make of when people died!). “Ach bleib’ mit deine Gnade” is a major work based on that loveliest of Lutheran chorals. Every mood was exploited in a variety of contrasting passages which were, nevertheless, held together by Ahreum’s firm grasp of the overall perspective. With the ‘Valse Mignonne’ we were back to memory again. This performance was exquisitely coloured with a flexibility of timing and poise which, however, never became self-indulgent. It seemed to me to be a perfect lady’s piece!

By the time we reached Vierne’s Adagio (Symphony no. 3), I felt we were getting to know Ahreum’s style. Here again, insipid flutes and strings on their own rarely featured. Practically everything stemmed from that Swell Diapason, and, when the texture expanded, there again was the Cavaillé-Coll sound-alike. Fascinating!

And to finish? Well! …. cheeky old Guy Bovet’s ‘Hamburger Totentanz’ – from memory, of course. What a joyous way to conclude the afternoon. Grinning faces were aplenty as Ahreum romped through this splendid moto ostinato, interrupted just now and then by shades of Offenbach and ‘Für Elise!’

I have already been asked if I will invite her to return, a rare thing at the Albert Hall when so many aspiring artistes are knocking at our door. In this case, though, the answer is a resounding YES. Look out for her ….. and BE there!