South Melbourne Town Hall, 28th March

The only way to describe this concert was wow! Wow for the sheer gumption to program such challenging and contrasting works, and wow for the dramatic performance that resulted.

From the first minutes of Peter Hill’s pre-concert talk, it was clear that we were in for something special. Hill, arguably the world’s most pre-eminent Messiaen scholar, was also a incredibly articulate speaker, and gave a wonderfully engaging survey of the composer’s career. The narrative was not overly academic – equipping the audience with valuable knowledge in preparation for music that is without a doubt intellectually challenging. One could say he was preaching to the converted – we had all already bought a ticket – but Hill went beyond this, making the works on the program highly accessible and indeed incredibly exciting.

The concert itself, while possibly a little on the long side, balanced Messiaen’s large-scale work Visions de l’amen in the second half with a selection of smaller ones – Préludes No.1, Catéyodjayâ and two movements of 4 Feuillets inédits – in the first. Directly preceding the interval, of all things, were four of JS Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. As a whole, this seemingly disparate program had a wonderful arc to it, and was a wonderful showcase of both Hill’s versatility and the skills of the ANAM piano students.

Visions de l’amen, clearly the central focus of Hill’s masterclasses at ANAM during the week, is an epic and deeply meditative work for two pianos. Hill played the second piano part throughout, while the six ANAM students shared the first part in something of a relay. Though this set-up had the capacity to be distracting, the result was nevertheless stunning. Each student brought a new energy to the instrument that was very much in line with the varied musical material of each movement. Aidan Boase and Jacob Abela, in particular, were stunning in the final three movements. Hill’s profound understanding of the work underpinned this, making for complete performance that was utterly thrilling.

The students’ performances of the Bach may have suffered a little from the Messiaen work being the week’s central focus, though Gladys Chua played Book II, C sharp major with a wonderful fluidity. Hill’s Book I, C major and B minor were stunning, with an elegance of touch and economy of gesture that show him to be an all-rounder in the most complete of senses.