All posts by Fran Wilson

Pianist, piano teacher, music and arts reviewer, blogger, writer, cook, and Burmese cat lover

‘Brief Encounter’ with Leon McCawley at the Royal Festival Hall

As part of the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love this summer, there have been three screenings of the classic love story Brief Encounter, with a live performance of the score (drawn largely from Rachmaninov’s perennially popular 2nd Piano Concerto) by pianist Leon McCawley with the LPO. The film screening took place during the second half of the concert and was preceded in the first half by a full performance of the Rachmaninov Concerto. The whole event was introduced by Lucy Fleming, daughter of Celia Johnson, who plays Laura, the female lead in Brief Encounter. Her introduction was full of wonderful anecdotes about the making of the film (which took place during the final year of the war), including extracts from Celia Johnson’s diary.

Trevor Howard as Alec and Celia Johnston as Laura in ‘Brief Encounter’

Based on Still Life, a one-act play by Noel Coward, and directed by David Lean, the plot centres around Laura, a suburban housewife married to a dependable but rather dull man. A chance meeting with a doctor, Alec Harvey, in the ‘refreshment room’ at the station (which is fiercely guarded by the wonderfully-named Myrtle Bagot, played by Joyce Carey with some of the best lines in the entire film) leads Laura into a brief but intense romantic liaison with the doctor, before circumstances and their own moral integrity forces them to part, never to meet again…. Much of the action is narrated by Laura, and despite the plummy, cut-glass RP accents of the main characters, the plot is sharply-observed, witty, very funny at times, and also heart-rendingly poignant. The story is underpinned by the wonderful score, and was in fact largely responsible for bringing this epic piece of music to wider fame. It has undoubtedly contributed to the enduring appeal.

It must be 20 years since I last heard the ‘Rach 2′ performed live (I think by Evgeny Kissin at the Proms) and I had forgotten what a gloriously rich and expressive work it is. Towering and climactic, it is demanding work to play, and one of the chief challenges is avoiding an overly-romantic reading of it. Leon McCawley’s warm tone was perfect for this work, combined with an exquisite clarity and an ability to highlight some of the less obvious details in the score. The entire work had a classical edge to it which avoided sentimentality, yet never detracted from the rich textures of the score.

Leon McCawley & the LPO (photo (c) Leon McCawley)
Leon McCawley & the LPO (photo (c) Leon McCawley)

To perform the score with the film must have taken some very careful rehearsing to create such a smooth synthesis of film and soundtrack. In her introduction, Lucy Fleming explained that some complicated technical processes were used to strip out the original music from the film. A new soundtrack was commissioned especially for the RFH screening: this played while we watched the film was the most wonderful cinematic and musical experience, a nod back to the days of silent cinema, almost, when films would be accompanied and “narrated” by a resident pianist, small orchestra or organist.  A really superb evening celebrating great music and a great film, both of which have most definitely stood the test of time. Oh, and the enduring power of love…..

Meet the Artist……Beth Levin, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career? 

We owned an old Lester upright in the basement and I went to it very early on – played the music in the piano bench, composed a bit – it was a magical spot. My first teacher had come over from Europe to study at Curtis Institute and she gave me wise first steps at the piano. I didn’t think of it as a career then, but it was already at the center of my life.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

My father always played the recordings of Richter and even in car rides would test me on the music and the artists emanating from the radio. He had a great ear and such a warm spirit.

My teachers – Maryan Filar, Rudolf Serkin, Leonard Shure and Dorothy Taubman – were perhaps the most important influences on me as a musician and also as a human being.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Some of the greatest challenges have been learning and performing the Goldberg Variations, the final three Beethoven Piano Sonatas and the Brahms D minor and Chopin E minor Concerti to name a few. This repertoire demands and allows the performer to go deep, to grow and be changed forever.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

I like the most recent –  Beethoven Op. 109-111 Sonatas on Parma Recordings.

And I’m also proud of the Bach Goldberg Variations on Centaur Recordings.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

I probably play the Romantic repertoire the best. But I like to think I can handle music of any time.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

I’m very influenced by friends – one recently suggested I learn Kreisleriana of Schumann and the big Schubert C minor Sonata. Having just played the late Beethoven program, this sits well with me. And I adore Schumann and Schubert.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

I may be happiest in intimate spaces such as Bargemusic in New York – but  any stage is a happy challenge if one feels at home.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love playing chamber music-(I’ll perform a cello/piano program tomorrow). A Brahms trio is heaven for me, or any of the great piano quintets…..
I adore and appreciate listening to singers – often from the past – and to strings.  One phrase of Casals’ Bach can be life-changing.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Hearing Stokowski live in Philadelphia and hearing Leonard Shure play a recital in Boston come to mind as outstanding memories.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Love for the music…….and of course titanic rhythm, deep phrasing and respect for the score.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m working on a modern work of Andrew Rudin – his Piano Sonata. And Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Also the Barber cello Sonata, Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata and the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet. I played the ‘Emperor Concerto’ recently and that is still with me.

What is your present state of mind? 

Because I play tomorrow I’m in a calm state of mind but ready to boil over at the right time.

Interview date: 8th March 2014

Beth Levin’s artistry invokes an uncanny sense of hearing for the first time
works long thought familiar, as though the pianist herself were discovering a piece in the playing of it. Such a style of refreshment and renewal can be traced back to Levin’s unique artistic lineage. As a child prodigy, she made her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 12.

She was subsequently taught and guided by legendary pianists such as Rudolf Serkin, Leonard Shure, Dorothy Taubman and Paul Badura-Skoda (who praised her as “a pianist of rare qualities and the highest professional caliber”). Her deep well of experience allows Levin to reach back through the golden age of the Romantic composers and connect to the sources of the great pianistic traditions, to Bach, to Mozart, to Beethoven.

Levin has appeared as a concerto soloist with numerous symphony orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Pops Orchestra, the Boston Civic Symphony and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. She has worked with noted conductors such as Arthur Fiedler, Tonu Kalam, Milton Katims, Joseph Silverstein and Benjamin Zander. Chamber music festival collaborations have brought her to the Marlboro Festival, Casals Festival, Harvard, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Ankara Music Festival and the Blue Hill Festival, collaborating with such groups such as the Gramercy Trio (founding member), the Audubon Quartet, the Vermeer Quartet and the Trio Borealis, with which she has toured extensively.

Beth’s full biography can be found on her website

www.bethlevinpiano.com

At the Piano with Roberta Wolff

What is your first memory of the piano?

It is more of a feeling, I remember being struck by the beauty and loving the patterns of the keys.  I don’t remember a time when there has not been a piano near by calling me to play.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Inspire is the right word and it was probably the music which did it. It had always been my long term intention, however, I also wanted to know about the workings of the instrument so trained as a technician first.  One day whilst tuning a piano I realised that I was ready to move into teaching.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

Beyond my lovely students from whom I learn continually I have had 6 teachers and they have all been significant in their own way.  If I had to pick one I would say Tim Barratt who snapped my playing, and practising into shape and guided me through the teaching diploma exams.  I also learnt more than expected, musically, during my time tuning for Steinway.  The sheer volume of high quality music I heard daily still runs through me.  I used to practise at Steinway over the weekends, helping myself to the concert fleet model Ds and receiving helpful passing comments from the likes of Alberto Portugheis and Charles Rosen.  When out on the road tuning I often had to wait for rehearsals to end, for me it was fascinating to listen in.  I am a better musician than I might have been as a result.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

This is an interesting one and the first thought that comes to mind is this……. when I was around 15, a piano teacher told me that I did not have a good enough ear to consider tuning pianos as a career.  By 22 I was tuning for Steinway covering Wigmore Hall and BBC Proms Concerts.  As a result I will never discourage a student but rather guide them in what they need to do to achieve their goals.  For me it is also important to keep myself musically stimulated through attending concerts, lessons and meetings with other musicians, taking the best from these experiences and passing it on.  I find trusting my intuition to be a very open and reliable way of working.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

They are probably the individual breakthroughs that students make after some time of careful work.  These delight me, no matter what the level, because of the personal feeling of success it brings the student.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? 

As well as the joy music brings, there is so much to be gained, on a personal level, from learning something later in life.  It is wonderful to watch adult students begin to trust and rely on the process, accept their mistakes and move away from their natural tendencies to be over analytical and critical.  The challenge for me is to lead by example!

Tell us how you developed the Music Me Piano Practice Books and how you think it will benefit piano students and teachers:

Music Me Piano is a piano practice note book available in three versions.  They developed out of a practice-a-thon my students took part in which highlighted a vast difference in achievement between the two week event and normal termly lessons. We realised that the speed of their progress during normal term time was hampered, not by the difficulty or time requirements of what I was asking them to do, but by their ability to divide up their work and use their practice time smartly.

During lesson time student and teacher plan what needs to be practised day by day for the week ahead.  Students benefit from very clear weekly targets which set in motion a positive cycle of achievements.  Their self-efficacy and enjoyment is increased but they also develop really powerful learning skills which translate to any subject.

Teachers benefit because they are working with more motivated students who are placed in a greater position of responsibility.  Teachers ensure, through the Reference Section, that the student has all the information needed to practise their work correctly.

A happy by product of all this is that lesson planning is a much more fluid process done in conjunction with the student.  The book opens up a discussion between teacher and student on the topics of practice and all the different areas which need to be covered to develop into a rounded musician.  The book can be used when you are teaching exam syllabuses and is also incredibly inspiring to use when lessons are not following the exam curriculum.  Providing a tool for teachers to connect all aspects of theory, form and musicianship through the piece being studied. A great way to set your own syllabus tailored to your student, and a super way to teach and learn!

What do you expect from your students?

The same as I expect from myself……..To give it their best, remain open and never ever say “I can’t”

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

As long as you approach them in a level-headed way when the time is right they are valuable learning experiences.  Also, I really feel music should be shared, so developing performance skills is important

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Actually they are not that different.  Follow the sound you are making, you can learn so much this way.  Don’t confine your musical education to the time spent in front of the piano, live it, music is everywhere.  Go to concerts, you need to experience many different styles, lines, tones and colours before you can go in search of what you want to create.  Observe yourself.  Play from the heart.  Know the value of deliberate practice, there is no quick fix which will give comparable results!

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

For me it is important to do both because developments in one area fuels the other in ways I may otherwise have missed.  Without stretching myself I would soon lose true empathy for my students; my best teaching and breakthrough moments with students come when I am working through difficulties of my own.  As well as that, performance needs to be taught and students learn much from watching.  I make sure I perform to all my students and parents during termly concerts.  We are all human, we all make mistakes, some people are just more practised at letting them slip by.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

Alfred Brendel, tone colour and mastery of every nuance and line.  Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, I was blown away by his playing last year, I think it was one of those special concerts where music, pianist and venue work perfectly.  Mitsuko Uchida, Maria Joao Pires, Krystian Zimmerman, especially the Schubert Impromptus.  I think it is good though to keep listening to new pianists and new music in new venues.

If you would like to know more about Music, Me, Piano please visit www.musicmepiano.co.uk

For more information on lessons, book presentations and book details please contact Roberta on info@robertawolff.co.uk or via her website www.robertawolff.co.uk

 

Review of the Music Me Piano practice notebook

Meet the Artist……Jeffrey Biegel, pianist

Jeffrey Biegel, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career? 

There was a piano in the house – an old Estey upright. I gravitated to it after my sister’s piano lessons. Like a magnet, I was drawn to the piano.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing/composing? 

In piano playing, my teachers, of course. Aside from Morton Estrin and Adele Marcus, I would have to say Josef Lhevinne, Artur Schnabel, Rachmaninov and of living pianists, Murray Perahia among many others.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

The greatest challenge in any career is to maintain a steady flow of employment. Fortunately, with standard repertoire, new concerto projects written for me, plus recordings and teaching, there is a nice flow and momentum to keep evolving as a musician.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

I would have to say in 1983, performing my debut with orchestra, Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, with the Juilliard Philharmonic in Lincoln Center; same concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC; Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra; and performances of concerti with the following composers in the audience: Keith Emerson, Neil Sedaka, Lowell Liebermann, William Bolcom, Richard Danielpour, Charles Strouse, Marjorie Rusche and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I love playing everything actually. I never know which is best, however.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I normally base the repertoire on new works being premiered and recorded, and the concerti asked for that particular season. next season includes Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Saint-Saens Concerto no. 2, Grieg’s Concerto, and Rachmaninov Concerti nos 2 and 3.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

I enjoy everywhere I perform – each venue has its own magic.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Too many to list!!

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Too many to list!! In the pop world, David Foster, Keith Emerson, Neil Sedaka (and I can’t get Pink’s song, ‘Just Give Me a Reason’ out of my head – liking it!); pop/classic pianists, Victor Borge and Liberace; classical world – everyone! I always enjoy listening to other pianists and hearing their interpretations of music we all know and love.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

If I must narrow it down, it would have to be my New York recital debut on April 14, 1986, in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall for the Juilliard William Petschek Piano Debut Award–an annual honor given to a pianist. I remember looking out through the backstage to see all of my family, friends and colleagues go to their seats. It was like getting married to the instrument, formally, in New York, in front of everyone I know.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

I would suggest creating and maintaining a network of musician friends, and friends in all artistic capacities. You never know when you might collaborate in special projects in performance, audio/video recording etc.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I am now at work for a recording project in the fall of 2014 featuring the following works:
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
Ellington: New World A-Comin’ (1945, orchestration by Maurice Peress; solo cadenza by Sir Roland Hanna)
Keith Emerson: Concerto no. 1 (1977)
Neil Sedaka: Manhattan Intermezzo (2010; piano part enhanced by Jeffrey Biegel)

Additionally, I will record Lucas Richman’s “Piano Concerto: In Truth” during the 2014-15 season; orchestra tba; and will learn a new concerto based on the famous rock group, The Monkees, to be composed by Dick Tunney out of Nashville. That will be premiered with Orchestra Kentucky in January 2015, along with Peter Tork’s “Moderato ma non troppo” for piano and orchestra. Kenneth Fuchs will be composing a Piano Concerto for me, which will have its world premiere in 2015-16 with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts with Kevin Rhodes conducting. For the Dicterow-DeMaine-Biegel trio, I will be learning Suk’s “Elegie”, and Dohnanyi’s “Quintet” for our January debut in Fort Worth, Texas. Also, the world premiere of Jeremy Lubbock’s new composition, “Moods–a duet for Piano and Strings” will take place in February 2015 with the orchestra of Moravian College in Pennsylvania.

 
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Still alive, performing and recording.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

A peaceful world, allowing us to travel anywhere, anytime, without religious or political boundaries.

What is your most treasured possession? 

A photo of pianist Josef Lhevinne to his student (and my teacher) Adele Marcus from May 26, 1928 – Adele changed the date to 1938 to make her younger!

Jeffrey Biegel’s biography

My review of Jeffrey Biegel’s CD ‘A Grand Romance’

 

 
 

South London Concert Series – 2014/15 season launch

Praised for its ability to combine quality music making, varied programmes and a convivial atmosphere, the South London Concert Series 2014/15 season launches on Sunday 14th September with a special concert at one of London’s most beautiful small venues.

fitch flyer

‘Notes&Notes’ combines music and words in a concert of music by J S Bach and Joseph Haydn by acclaimed pianist and teacher Graham Fitch. Join Graham after the concert for a cream tea and the chance to socialise with other music lovers.

14 September 2014 Notes&Notes: Graham Fitch Craxton Studios, Hampstead, London NW3.

Buy tickets

Greenwich shot3 October 2014 Matthew Sear at the 1901 Arts Club, London SE1.

Classical guitarist Matthew Sear plays works by Benjamin Britten and John Dowland, together with his own compositions from his new album. Matthew is joined by supporting artists Rebecca Singerman-Knight, Muzz Shah, Jennie Barham and Julie Cooper in music by Prokofiev, Bortkiewicz, and Rachmaninoff. Early Bird Tickets now available. Buy Tickets

large12 December 2014Ernest So, piano, at the 1901 Arts Club. ‘Russian Romantics’.

A concert with a special accent on lesser-known Russian romantic repertoire, including works by Bortkiewicz and Medtner. Ernest is joined by supporting artists Rob Foster, Clio Chu, Petra Chong and Claire Hansell. Buy tickets

IMG_228122nd January 2015 Frances Wilson at LASSCO Brunswick House, Vauxhall, SW8. The South London Concert Series returns to the opulent setting of the Saloon at Brunswick House, a magnificent Georgian mansion which is home to an eclectic collection of antiques and salvaged curiosities. Join SLCS Artistic Director Frances Wilson and supporting artists for a concert of piano music by Debussy, Pärt, Schubert, Satie, and Messiaen, plus the world premiere of Preludes for piano by Matthew Sear.

Early Bird tickets now available. Buy tickets

17 September 2015Daniel Roberts, piano, and Hannah Woolmer, violin, at LASSCO Brunswick House. Set in the wonderful opulence of the Saloon at Brunswick House, we present a recital of music for violin and piano and solo piano. Programme and supporting artists to be announced. Buy tickets

Meet the Artist……Ho Wan Jeremy Leung

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano/composing/conducting, and make it your career? 

Not just a single person has inspired me. I’ve had some great piano teachers before and during my time at university. My last lessons were with Mikhail Kazakevich from Trinity College of Music. I found it amazing that every piece I wanted to learn he was already able play from memory, while looking at me, and could really shake the grand piano playing Liszt. It was a really relaxed environment where I was able to not just ask questions, but also have discussions about the music and I learnt an incredible amount from this. I discovered during this time how to really uncover and convey the music’s narrative as opposed to just learning the technical aspects of a piece.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

Unsurprisingly, especially for the people that know me, I relish the spotlight and the idea of putting on a grand performance is always on my mind. However, I do a lot of lounge jazz playing, and I love having an audience who are doing other things and where music isn’t the main focus. I feel completely free to explore music and try new things without the pressure of the spotlight. It’s really easy to make the space a performance for myself.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love the intense emotion and raw power of the late romantic Russians (Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, etc). I think this is in part due to my style of composition, as I love creating piano works in their style and I can never resist learning a challenging piece of music. However, I’ve always loved the simple beauty and lyricism of Chopin, so I always try and have a piece of his on the go.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Musicians like Vladimir Ashkenazy and Leonard Bernstein I really aspire to, as they are greats in more than just one field. However, for specific pieces, composers and genres I have my favourites. Jazz Trio playing – Brad Mehldau, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto – Olga Kern, Conducting Stravinsky’s Firebird – Valery Gergiev. The very long list goes on.…

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

My first time as a concert pianist, I was performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This was such a fun piece to learn, and even though I was nervous before, the moment I started playing I relaxed into the music and for 15 minutes the audience didn’t exist, it was just the music and me. It was over way to soon, and I felt such an incredible rush I wanted to do it again straight away. However, I wasn’t fully satisfied and I think I will always be looking for bigger and better things to get involved in. After the concert, I was told there where children dancing at the back, a success in my opinion!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Always have a performance to work toward otherwise it’s really easy to put practicing to the side. Keep an open mind to new pieces of music you are introduced to, I know my taste in music has dramatically changed over the last few years. Join in everything!

What are you working on at the moment? 

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for a concert later this year, and Blumenfeld’s Etude for the Left Hand, Op.36 for my birthday party/jam night next week – I want to be able to finish a drink in my right hand before the piece is over!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

I would love to have my hand firmly in the three things I love, which is Performing, Composing and Conducting. My idea of perfect happiness is centre stage in a grand concert hall abroad with the Berlin Philharmonic performing and conducting a piano concerto I have composed.

Ho Wan Jeremy Leung 梁皓雲

www.howanjeremyleung.com

Interview date: September 2013

Brenchley Summer Proms 2014

Marie-Luise Syré, Q11, AKGSet in the beautiful and historic village of Brenchley, Kent, the Summer Proms are a wonderful opportunity to listen to the highest quality music in informal and friendly surroundings. Concerts take place in All Saints’ Church, an inspired and inspiring place to make music, and this year’s Proms will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Adolf Henselt with performances of his complete chamber music, starting with his startlingly original Opus 1 and closing with his crowning masterpiece, the Concerto in F minor.

All concerts begin at 5.30pm in All Saints’ Church, Brenchley. The first concert is on Saturday 30th August and the Brenchley Summer Proms continue on each Saturday of September until 27th with a special concert in memoriam James Naylor, raising funds and awareness of safekent.org.uk

Brenchley Summer Proms are directed by pianist Daniel Grimwood and bring together a fantastic line up of international musicians, including Leslie Howard and Fenella Humphreys.

For more information about Brenchley Summer Proms, please visit brenchleyproms.co.uk

Meet the Artist……Daniel Grimwood

Meet the Artist……Fenella Humphreys

 

Review: ‘Classic Gershwin’ with Viv Mclean & Susan Porrett

The music of George Gershwin remains perennially popular with performers and audiences alike, and his life and work are vividly illustrated in ‘Classic Gershwin’, a new words and music production with actress Susan Porrett and acclaimed Gershwin interpreter, pianist Viv McLean.

It is a mistake to think of Gershwin purely as a composer of “jazz” (a term he in fact disliked, preferring the term “swing” to describe his jazz-inspired music). His musical tastes and influences were wide, from Bach to Strasinsky and Schoenberg. He was particularly influenced by the French composers of the early twentieth-century, notably Maurice Ravel, who in turn was most intrigued by Gershwin’s work. Gershwin’s great skill was his ability to manipulate different forms of music into his own unique musical voice.

‘Classic Gershwin’, the third words and music collaboration between Susan Porrett and Viv McLean, takes the audience on an exhilarating, foot-tapping journey through Gershwin’s life and music, from his early years in Brooklyn to Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood to his tragically early death from a brain tumour in 1937. Just as in ‘Divine Fire’, Viv and Sue’s moving concert focusing on the life of Chopin and his relationship with Georges Sand, the text of ‘Classic Gershwin’ offers just enough information to continually pique the listener’s attention and brings Gershwin to life with the clever and eclectic interweaving of words and music. Each nugget is illustrated with sensitively-chosen music selections, including Someone to Watch Over Me and the rarely-performed Three Preludes, to Swanee, the song which marked Gershwin’s elevation into the realms of established composer and song-writer, after Al Jolson heard Gershwin play it at a party.

The first half of Classic Gershwin closes with Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin’s hommage to bustling metropolis of Jazz-Age New York, the city of his home, complete with wailing sirens, honking car horns and the rattle of the subway. The second half focuses on Gershwin’s later life, his growing success and fame, and his work in Hollywood. The description of his failing health (the result of a then-undiagnosed brain tumour) was told with great poignancy, and the concert closed on a tender note, a fitting contrast to the sparkling bravura of the Rhapsody in Blue.

The great appeal of this words and music concert, aside from the wonderful music, played by Viv with great precision, exuberance and musical sensitivity, all underpinned by his pristine technique, is its ability to offer just enough information in the text to keep the listener wanting more. Viv demonstrated that pieces driven by rhythmic vitality and syncopation can still have the most exquisite tonal palette and a magical dynamic range, and the music provided the most delicious interludes, complementing the text at every turn (the musical selections are made between Viv and Sue). The overall effect is a glorious and intriguing celebration of Gershwin’s life and work.

This was the world premiere of this new words and music collaboration and it was rapturously received by the audience at the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, SW London. Highly recommended.

‘Classic Gershwin’ comes St Mary’s Perivale on 16th November and Bridport Arts Centre, Bridport, Dorset on 16th December. For further information about future performances please visit the Seven Star Productions website.

Read about the fundraising campaign for the piano at the OSO Barnes

My review of ‘Divine Fire’

Repertoire in focus: Schubert – Impromptu in F minor

Franz Peter Schubert
Franz Peter Schubert

Schubert wrote two sets of Impromptus (D899 and D935). Composed in 1827, his post-‘Winterreise’ annus mirabilis, a year of fervent creativity, the Impromptus remain some of his most popular piano works, particularly the first set and the third of the D935 (a set of variations based on the ‘Rosamunde’ theme from his opera of the same name). The first set tend to be performed more frequently and I have occasionally heard both sets in the same concert, with a selection of the Moments Musicaux slotted in between them.

The word “Impromptu” is misleading, suggesting a small-scale extemporaneous salon piece. In fact, all of Schubert’s Impromptus are tightly-knit and highly cohesive works, and the longest lasts over ten minutes. Schubert did not invent the term “impromptu”: Jan Vorisek, the Bohemian composer living in Vienna, published the first impromptus in 1822, and the term was assigned to Schubert’s works by his Viennese publisher. When he sent out his second set of Impromptus, Schubert numbered them five through to eight. Schumann posited that Schubert may have had something much larger in mind when he composed the D935 set, and even suggested that the key sequence of the four pieces formed a piano sonata in all but name. Certainly the F minor Impromptu (the first of the D935 – the set ends with another F minor impromptu) has the grandeur and scale one expects from a piano sonata from this period but all four works also stand alone, each distinct in their own right.

I have lived with Schubert’s Impromptus since my teens, and have muddled through all of them and learnt two of them properly (the E flat Impromptu from the D899 formed part of my first Diploma programme). For me, the works are continually interesting for their range, depth, variety, individual characters and specific musical challenges. They each display in microcosm many aspects and distinctive characteristics of Schubert’s large-scale piano music (sonatas and fantasies for example) and are extremely rewarding to play. They work well in concert programmes, performed either as a complete set, or as separate pieces, and remain perennially popular with artists and audiences alike.

The entire D935 is a much more substantial set of pieces than the first set, and this is especially true of the first F minor Impromptu. Organised in sonata-rondo form, the tone of this impromptu moves between an almost-Beethovenian drama and assertiveness in its opening section and the more flowing, melodic duet of the central sections.

In terms of learning and playing this Impromptu, I would suggest the following based on my current study of the work:

  • The piece is organised in distinct sections (and one will tend to learn it sectionally). Keep in mind the overall structure and narrative of the piece to produce a cohesive whole and be alert to the bridges between each section
  • Be careful not to over-emphasise the forte, fortissimo and fz markings: remember this is Schubert not Beethoven. I feel the dynamic contrasts are not as black and white as one would expect in Beethoven.
  • Bars 13-19 (and also 126-133): here you want to try to recreate a sense of the underlying chords and chord changes. This section must not sound too dry. Aim for a “shimmering” touch with a sense of string articulation. (Extract 1)
  • Bars 30-38 (and also 144-152): don’t begin this section with too much power or heaviness (remember – it’s not Beethoven!). Hold back to allow for a real climax into bars 30/31. Keep the touch light and the RH semiquaver arpeggios delicate.
  • Bars 44-64 (and also 159-177): after some discussion and experimentation with my teacher, I try to keep this section light and rhythmic (there is a danger of making the textures too thick here because of the chords). Although Schubert marks it sempre legato, the staccato markings suggest that one should continue in this vein throughout this section. This gives the chords a wonderful dancing lightness. But be sure to observe all the legato markings very diligently. The RH semiquavers at bar 56+ should just shimmer over the LH chords. (Extract 2)
  • Bars 69-112 (and also 182-225): this is the emotional heart of the piece – plaintive duetting fragments in treble and bass, accompanied by gently rippling semiquavers in the RH. The accompaniment must not intrude, but it is also important to retain a sense of the underlying harmonies and chord changes. Keep the hand soft and the wrist flexible: some of these broken chords are awkward (in particular, bar 204) and at no point must these semiquavers sound “notey” or dry, especially in the forte sections. Meanwhile the duet (played by the LH only) should sing, with careful shaping in the fragments. (Extract 3)
Extract 1
Extract 1
Extract 2
Extract 2
Extract 3
Extract 3

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Further reading

Charles Fisk – Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas

John Daverio – Crossing Paths: Schubert, Schumann and Brahms