Tag Archives: concert review

Valentina Lisitsa at Wigmore Hall

(photo: Gilbert Francois)

Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa first performed at London’s Wigmore Hall in late 2007. Since then, she has gone on to achieve an almost cult following on YouTube, due in no small part to her selfless posting of videos of her practice sessions, usually the most private and personal preserve of the musician’s working life.  I suspect that these glimpses into her daily musical routines have endeared her to her followers, proving that she, like the rest of us, has to work hard for her art. Clearly adept at harnessing the relatively new medium of YouTube and its associated social networking applications, she has enjoyed a cool 70 million clicks on her videos together with concerts at The Yellow Lounge, a neat concept established in Berlin in 2006 to bring classical music to a much younger audience by holding concerts in nightclubs.

I admit to being slightly wary of anything or anyone that is labelled “a sensation” or “must see/hear” (ditto “iconic” – a word which should probably be banned from all publicity material and reviews of musicians, books and art exhibitions!). However, I was curious to hear Valentina Lisitsa in concert as I had read largely positive things about her live performances, so I went to hear her at Wigmore Hall on Monday lunchtime with ears and mind very much open and receptive.

Ms Lisitsa is tall and slender, with long blonde hair, her lissome frame accentuated by a simple black gown and spindly stiletto sandals. Her stage presence is modest, demure almost: there are no flamboyant gestures or crowd-pleasing piano pyrotechnics beyond those technical theatrics necessarily for the music and when she plays she seems entirely focussed on the task in hand. For her lunchtime programme she presented two very well-known and highly dramatic sonatas – Beethoven’s ‘Tempest’ and the craggy, Herculean Liszt B-minor, serious fare indeed.

The opening arpeggio of the Beethoven seemed unnecessarily elongated, so that its natural drama threatened to veer into the realms of cliché. However, taken with the explosive agitated first subject, when this motif reappeared, once again over-stretched, the effect was mysterious and convincing. A slow movement of beguiling warmth and tenderness prefaced an elegantly-turned finale, its tempo sufficiently reined in to allow us to enjoy Beethoven’s expression and inventiveness. I heard Maurizio Pollini play the same Sonata at the Royal Festival Hall a fortnight ago, and while the Italian maestro may have offered a more probing account born of many years spent living with this music, there was much to admire in Ms Lisitsa’s performance and there was no doubting her commitment, meticulous preparation, technical fluency and attention to detail. This proved a highly engaging reading of one of Beethoven’s best-loved Sonatas.

Liszt’s B-minor Sonata is a strange creature: heard on disc it can sound sprawling and disparate, but heard live and done well, it is a staggering music edifice. (Liszt scholar Alan Walker described it as “arguably one of the greatest keyboard works … of the nineteenth century”.) It takes an intelligent and daring pianist to pull all the elements together to create a whole. Divided into defined sections, demarcated by different tempo and expression markings – in effect, “movements” – these sections flow into one another, creating a single movement of non-stop music, lasting about 30 minutes.

Ms Lisitsa’s account had the requisite power and darkness in the opening statements, the famous theme which returns throughout the work. Her transitions between the sections were sensitively nuanced, creating a continuous, coherent narrative. There were moments of great transparency of sound, lyrical cantabile playing and delicate pianissimos. Her foot may have strayed to the una corda pedal a little too often in these passages, but overall her account was authoritative, at times thrillingly precipitous in the allegro and presto sections.

Checking with Sara Mohr Pietsch, the BBC Radio Three presenter for the concert, that an encore would be “allowed”, Ms Lisitsa gave a serene performance of Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Ave Maria. This was followed by a coruscating Chopin Etude (Op 10, No. 12), proving that she is very much a “real pianist” and one who, by her own admission on Twitter in the hours following the concert, “here to stay”.

 

Concert review: Maurizio Pollini at the Royal Festival Hall

Maurizio Pollini (© Cosimo Filippini)

Maurizio Pollini (© Cosimo Filippini)

How does one define “greatness” in a pianist? Is it the willingness to tackle a broad sweep of repertoire from Baroque to present-day? Profound musicality and penetrating insights, founded on pristine technique? A fearless approach to risk-taking in live concerts? Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini is the sum of these parts – and much more – as his recent concerts in London have demonstrated. Here is an artist who is equally at home in the elegance of Bach, the intimacy of Chopin’s miniatures and the spiky modernism of Pierre Boulez, always bringing supreme pianism and fresh insights to his performances.

For his second International Piano Series concert at a packed Royal Festival Hall, Pollini trod a more traditional path in an all-Beethoven programme. Traditional, but also ambitious: to perform three of the most well-known, revered and technically demanding of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas would be a challenge for any artist. For a man of seventy-two (and he looks older and frailer) this was a monumental programme, which scaled the highest Himalayan peaks of pianism…..

Read my full review here http://bachtrack.com/review-maurizio-pollini-beethoven-apr-2014

Leon McCawley at Eaton Square

Leon McCawley (Photo credit: Clive Barda)

Leon McCawley (Photo credit: Clive Barda)

BEETHOVEN: Sonata in C minor Op. 10, No. 1
MENDELSSOHN: Song Without Words, Op. 38, No. 2 in C minor
MENDELSSOHN: Song Without Words, Op. 19, No. 6 in G minor
MENDELSSOHN: Song Without Words, Op. 30, No. 1 in E flat major
BRAHMS: Two Rhapsodies Op. 79 (No. 1 in B minor and No. 2 in G minor)
RACHMANINOV: 13 Preludes, Op. 32

Leon McCawley, piano

Deep in the heart of Belgravia, just five minutes from Victoria Station, is St Peter’s Eaton Square, an early nineteenth-century neo-classical church which has undergone extension modernisation following a fire some years ago. It is home to Eaton Square Concerts, now in its fifteenth season, which showcases established artists and rising talent.

For the first concert of the Spring 2014 season, Leon McCawley, one of Britain’s foremost pianists, performed works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Rachmaninov. The concert was introduced by managing director Carl Anton Muller, and Leon McCawley was received most enthusiastically – and indeed throughout the entire evening.

Beethoven’s early piano sonatas should never be dismissed as “juvenilia” – for in them we find a composer already fully conversant with this genre. Many of the early sonatas display characteristics of style, form and expression which prefigure the later, more well-known piano sonatas, and the Opus 10, No. 1 in C minor is no exception. This sonata looks forward to the more famous ‘Pathétique’ with its robust outer movements enclosing a middle movement of great serenity with a beautiful cantabile melody.

McCawley gave an energetic account of the first movement, its dark and angular opening sentence contrasted with a lyrical second subject, the entire movement crisply articulated with fine attention to the string quartet and orchestral writing and startling dynamic changes. The middle movement offered a respite from the darkly-hued outer movements. Scored in warm-hearted A -flat major, it was an opportunity to enjoy some fine legato playing. The final movement was a burst of nervous energy, only just held in check by McCawley, which allowed him to highlight not only the dramatic possibilities inherent in Beethoven’s writing, but also the composer’s wit: the movement ends with a slower coda and a final sentence which is almost a whisper.

In the Songs Without Words by Mendelssohn there was further opportunity to enjoy McCawley’s exceptionally fine legato playing. Beloved of Victorian salons, Mendelssohn invented the concept of the Lieder Ohne Worte, and produced eight volumes of these varied and lyrical miniatures. McCawley’s selection of just three from the Opp 38, 19 and 30 was intimate, expressive and poignant.

Brahms’ Two Rhapsodies Op 79 closed the first half of the evening, McCawley giving free rein to the climactic nature of these works and capitalising on the rich bass sonorities of the piano. It also set the scene for the Rachmaninov which followed after the interval.

Rachmaninov was following the precedent set by Chopin’s Preludes, and his two sets Op 23 and 32 complete the twenty four. In the Op 32 set, Rachmaninov uses four pairs of parallel keys (E, F A and B, major/minor) but no relative keys. Each Prelude opens with a tiny melodic or rhythmic fragment on which the whole is built. Alert to the contrasting and varied nature of these short works, McCawley gave an account that was committed and emotionally charged, highlighting both the expansiveness of Rachmaninov’s writing as well as the interior details of each piece.

What better way to close than with an encore of Schumann’s Traumerei, tenderly delivered.

This was my first visit to Eaton Square Concerts and I was impressed not only with the fine acoustic of the venue, but the high quality music. I very much look forward to attending further concerts at Eaton Square.

 

Meet the Artist……Leon McCawley (interview from April 2012)

www.eatonsquareconcerts.org.uk

Boris Berezovsky at Royal Festival Hall

(photo credit: David Crookes)

In a welcome return to London after several years’ absence, acclaimed Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky opened the 2014 International Piano Series concerts at Southbank Centre with an impressive and absorbing recital of music by two of the finest composers of preludes for the piano, Debussy and Rachmaninov, interspersed with Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata. Opening his concert with two pieces by Debussy not included in the printed programme, rather in the manner of a nineteenth-century virtuoso, he closed with an imposing and well-judged account of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata, demonstrating an appreciation of both the scope of the music and the vastness of the country of its origin. This was an evening of pure pianism, delivered without flashy gimmicks or unnecessary gestures, just honest, committed playing of the highest order.

Read my full review here

The International Piano Series continues at the Southbank Centre

An afternoon with György and Márta Kurtág

It’s unusual to enter the auditorium of the QEH and see a small unassuming upright piano on the stage instead of the usual swaggering concert Steinway. In front of the piano, near the edge of the stage, flimsy sheets of  music were arranged on eight spindly stands. Overlooking the whole scene, a plaster bust of Beethoven, frowning down upon the proceedings.

A recital featuring the music of Hungarian composer and pedagogue George Kürtag is always going to be quirky, unusual and playful – and this concert was no exception.

Kurtag’s Hipartita for solo violin, a work composed for violinist Hiromi Kikuchi, who performed it at this concert. Combining the soloist’s name with the Baroque partita, a collection of pieces related to each other, the Hipartita contains movements dedicated to figures from Hungarian musical life, ancient Greece, Hungarian folk dances, including the Czardas, and even J S Bach himself. A curious work full of wails and squawks, skittish scurryings and glissandi, it was strangely haunting and witty all at once, and was presented with intense concentration and an aching beauty by Hiromi Kikuchi. At the end of the performance, Hiromi gestured into the audience, and after a pause György Kurtág himself, frail but smiling broadly, tottered onto the stage to receive applause alongside the soloist.

After the interval the piano had been shifted to centre stage, a duet bench set before it and another selection of flimsy pages on the music stand. Kurtág and his wife Márta walked slowly onto the stage, gently supporting one another. They were going to perform and selection of short pieces from Kurtág’s Játékok (Games), a series of works for children and beginner pianists, for which the model was Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. In Játékok, the focus is on movement and gestures rather than accuracy, thus drawing on the educational philosophy of Rudolph Steiner. These charming and idiosyncratic miniatures were interspersed with Kurtág’s own transcriptions of works by Bach, for four hands, and all played with great delicacy of tone and touch.

Here is the scene: Gyõrgy seated at the piano, Márta at his side quietly removing the pages, and joining him in duets of his own music and his Bach transcriptions, the practice pedal permanently depressed so that the sounds emerging from the piano are soft, gentle and intimate. Enhanced only slightly by amplification, the sound of the piano is domestic, homely. The Kurtágs lean towards one another as they play or mirror one another’s gestures, reaching across each other at the keyboard; sometimes they look tenderly at each other. It is as if we are peeping in on an afternoon of private music-making in their home.

This all-too brief yet exquisite and unassuming recital was met with a standing ovation, people rising to their feet not to applaud greatness but rather to share in the emotional spell this miniature music and its frail and deeply sensitive performers had cast upon us all. Many people were in tears, overcome with an emotion that was impossible to describe.

John Gilhooly took to the stage to present Maestro Kurtág with the RPS Gold Medal, in the presence of Beethoven (who himself was awarded the gold medal). In response to Gilhooly’s eulogy, Gyorgy Kurtág, as quietly-spoken as his music, said “I am not a man of words”, and then returned to the piano to play Mozart’s G major Variations with Márta.

An extraordinary and rare afternoon of music, curiously subversive by dint of the fact that it went against the grain of the traditional concert, and one many of us are unlikely to experience again.

Concert review: Darkness Visible – Marc-Andre Hamelin at Wigmore Hall

Marc-André Hamelin, (image credit: Fran Kaufman)

Marc-André Hamelin, (image credit: Fran Kaufman)

Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin has an unerring ability to tackle anything the piano repertoire can throw at him: the craggy, disparate edifice of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX, Villa-Lobos’ savage Rudepoema, the mannered classicism of Haydn, and the sweeping romanticism of Liszt. His latest concert, part of his residency at Wigmore Hall in 2013/14, combined peerless technical mastery, cool perfection, pristine beauty and profound musical understanding in a quartet of works by Medtner, Janáček, Ravel and Hamelin himself, with the London première of his own composition. The programme traced a darkly lit narrative from the brooding opening bars of Hamelin’s atmospheric Barcarolle, through the sprawling musical landscapes of Medtner’s Night Wind piano sonata in E minor, inspired by a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, to the poignant intimacy of Janacek’s On an Overgrown Path and the strange night-time fantasies of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.

Read my full review here

Concert review: Madelaine Jones at the NPL Musical Society

My local music society based at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington is proving a rich and varied source of fine music this autumn. Last month I attended excellent concerts by Helen Burford, in an eclectic programme of mostly contemporary music, and Joseph Tong who played works by McCabe, Sibelius and Ravel, and ended with a rollicking ‘Wanderer Fantasy’ by Schubert. For the first concert of November, pianist Madelaine Jones returned to the NPL to give a lunchtime recital of works by Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and little-known female composer Louise Farrenc.

4bfbb2f28b-DSCF5588Now in her final year at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in Greenwich, south-east London, Madelaine studies with my piano teacher, Penelope Roskell (I first met Maddie at one of my teacher’s weekend courses, some three years ago). A busy performing musician, Madelaine is now looking beyond next summer to where her musical studies might take her next: this recital was an opportunity for her to perform her programme for forthcoming auditions at the Royal Academy and Royal College of Music, Trinity, and Yale, amongst others.

Madelaine introduced her programme, explaining that Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ is considered to be the Old Testament of music, while Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas are the New Testament. As it happened, her programme contained works from both, and the opening Prelude from the Prelude & Fugue in D minor BWV 875 from Book 2 of the WTC was played with vigour, colour, and crisp articulation (Madelaine also plays the harpsichord, evident in her lightness of touch in the Prelude). The Fugue was more thoughtful, with sensitive attention to the strands of counterpoint (in her introduction, Madelaine described a fugue rather charmingly as “voices chasing each other”). This was an authoritative account, and a splendid opener for the concert.

Beethoven’s Opus 10 Piano Sonatas were published in 1798. The first and the third of the Opus are serious and tempestuous (the Op 10, no. 1 prefigures the Pathétique Sonata), but the middle sonata of the triptych, Op 10 no. 2 in F major, is more light-hearted, a “cheeky” first movement which amply displays Beethoven’s characteristic wit and musical humour. Madelaine was alert to the rapid shifts of mood, dynamics, and orchestration in Beethoven’s writing: a sprightly first movement gave way to an elegant minuet and trio, followed by a fugal finale, nimbly played by Madelaine. Sparing use of the pedal, precise articulation and musical intelligence resulted in a very colourful and enjoyable account of this early period sonata.

In a change to the printed programme, Stravinsky’s second Piano Sonata (1924) came next, again engagingly introduced by Madelaine. Composed while Stravinsky was resident in Paris in the 1920s, this Sonata harks back to Baroque and Classical models, and it was an inspired piece of programming to place it straight after the Beethoven, which helped illuminate the classical elements inherent in Stravinsky’s writing (a first movement in Sonata form – exposition, development, recapitulation – followed by a slow movement). Indeed, the slow movement, as Madelaine put it, was written as if Stravinsky had taken a typical Beethoven slow movement and simply “allowed the hands the wander around the keyboard”. Madelaine’s precise attention to detail, tonal clarity, energy of attack, and musical understanding made for a most interesting performance.

To finish Madelaine played the Air russe varié, op. 17 by Louise Dumont Farrenc, a French composer who, according to Schumann, writing in his Die neue Zeitschrift für Musik showed great promise, but who has fallen into obscurity. And indeed the work Madelaine performed was redolent of Schumann’s own music with its contrasting and varied movements and musical volte-faces. This work was proof that Madelaine is equally comfortable in Romantic repertoire, delivering a performance that caught the full emotional sweep and virtuosity of this music: a committed, bravura performance founded on solid technique and undeniable musicality.

Details of Madelaine’s forthcoming concerts can be found on her website:

madelainejones.co.uk

My Meet the Artist interview with Madelaine

Forthcoming concerts at the National Physical Laboratory Musical Society:

6th November – Corrine Morris, cello and Kathron Sturrock, piano

11th November – Alice Pinto, piano

18th November – Nadav Hertzka, piano

22nd November – Kathron Sturrock, piano

26th November – Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist), piano in works by Bach, Cage, Debussy, Liszt, Elgar, and Messiaen

Concerts take place in the Scientific Music, Bushy House, National Physical Laboratory, Teddington TW11 0LW, and start at 12.45pm. Tickets £3 on the door.

Concert review: Imogen Cooper’s insightful and intimate Schubert

Imogen Cooper (image credit © Tina Pluchino)

Schubert cycles are in the air: earlier this month pianist James Lisney’s wide-ranging ‘Schubertreise’ series reached its journey’s end at London’s Purcell Room, and on Saturday evening Imogen Cooper concluded her own survey of Schubert’s piano sonatas with a performance of the last three sonatas to a packed, attentive and highly appreciative Wigmore Hall audience.

Read my full review here

Concert review: Amit Yahav at St James’s Piccadilly

I can think of few better ways to spend a Monday lunchtime than enjoying piano music in a beautiful setting such as the Wren church of St James’s, Piccadilly. It was doubly pleasing to escape the cold October rain on this particular Monday.

St James’s Piccadilly hosts regular lunchtime recitals, mostly featuring up-and-coming and emerging artists. There is no entrance charge, though audience members are invited to make a donation afterwards to enable the church to continue to host these concerts.

A multi-award winning graduate of the Royal College of Music, pianist Amit Yahav is now pursuing a career as a performing artist as well as undertaking doctoral studies into the music of Chopin, at the RCM. He has received particular praise for his performances of Mozart, Chopin, Schumann and Liszt.

Amit opened his recital with Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor BWV 826. The Partitas were the last set of keyboard works Bach composed, and are the most technically demanding of all his keyboard suites. They were originally published separately, and later collected into a single volume, known as the Clavier-Übung I (Keyboard Practice), the title suggesting that Bach regarded these as technical works for rather than music for performance. In fact, like the French and English Suites, the Partitas are extremely satisfying, enjoyable and varied works, for both performer and listener.

The C minor Partita opens with grand orchestral statements before moving into more fluid territory, to which Amit brought great clarity of articulation, despite the rather echoey acoustic in the church, and the large voice of the Fazioli grand piano. The subsequent movements were shapely, Amit always sensitive to the melodic lines and “voices” so crucial to Bach’s music. The Courante, Rondeaux and Capriccio were sprightly, imbued with wit, despite the minor key.

The Schumann Humoresque Opus 20 might seem a strange pairing with Bach’s mannered arabesques, but in fact both pieces worked well together as a programme. The Humoresque shares a number of features with the Partita, most notably its changes of mood and tempo through the individual movements. The work consists of seven movements, to be played attaca one after another. Amit was adept at neatly capturing the mercurial wit and humour of Schumann’s writing, highlighting Schumann’s dual musical personalities: episodes of warm lyricism and emotional depth were contrasted with masterly double-octave passages, nimble tempos, and full-toned fortissimos. This was an extremely enjoyable concert, the music performed with finesse, sensitivity, and obvious commitment by this young artist.

Details of future performances by Amit Yahav can be found on his website

Meet the Artist….,.Amit Yahav

Concert review: Marc-André Hamelin at Wigmore Hall

(image credit © Sim Canetty-Clarke)

Concerts by Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin are always challenging and exciting: a fearless approach to repertoire and unusual programme juxtapositions, combined with insightful musicianship, all underpinned by formidable technique create some of the most compelling musical experiences, and Hamelin’s latest Wigmore Hall offering was no exception.

Read my full review here