Tag Archives: concert review

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Mahan Esfahani at Wigmore Hall

This is the year of CPE Bach, the tercentenary of the birth of the fifth son of JS, and this anniversary is being marked with performances, recordings and appreciations of his music worldwide.

This is also the year of Mahan Esfahani, the young Iranian harpsichordist, now resident in the UK, who has been credited with bringing the harpsichord “out of the closet” and making this instrument, the pre-eminent symbol of the Baroque period, accessible and exciting and proving that the harpsichord has an important position in contemporary music making.

I first encountered Mahan Esfahani via Norman Lebrect’s Slipped Disc blog and, my interest piqued, heard Mahan perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Cadogan Hall as part of the 2011 Proms. This was a double first – Mahan’s Proms debut and the first solo harpsichord recital in the Proms history. The performance was fresh, thrilling and insightful, revealing many of the gems of Bach’s writing not always highlighted by other performers, either on harpsichord or piano.

Since then, Mahan’s star has been ascending rapidly, evidenced by a busy international concert diary, including participation in this yaer’s Aldeburgh Festival, appearances on BBC Radio 3, and an acclaimed recording of CPE Bach’s Wurttemberg Sonatas for Hyperion. In addition, Mahan is a sharply intellectual musician who is not afraid to challenge the dogmas of the early music movement and who likes to draw his own conclusions about aspects such as interpretation and performance practice from his studies of period sources, and collaborations with modern instrument players to recreate the sonic world of earlier music.

Mahan’s witty and relaxed stage manner combine with his intelligence and musical insight, resulting in recitals with a magnetic appeal which prove that far from an instrument capable of producing “one sound”, the harpsichord is vibrant, colourfully nuanced, expressive and highly textural. From the melancholic arabesques of Couperin to the dramatic bravura and declamatory statements of the young JS Bach’s Toccata in F# minor BWV910 to the graceful soundscape of Takemitsu (an inspired inclusion), this was a concert which fizzed and sparkled.

Those of us more used to hearing piano recitals at the Wigmore need a few moments to “tune in” to the sound of the harpsichord. It speaks more quietly, inevitably, because of its size, but the special acoustic of the Wigmore Hall seems just about ideal for this instrument. Add to this an audience which, by and large, listened most attentively, creating a highly engaging and absorbing concert.

In addition to the works by Couperin, JS Bach and Takemitsu, there were two Sonatas by CPE (“Emmanuel”) Bach, written while his father was still alive. Dedicated to Emmanuel’s employer, the newly-crowned Prussian King Frederick II, these sonatas reveal a composer working within a musical landscape which was poised on the cusp of change and display the remarkable forward-pull of Emmanuel’s creative impulse in the use of texture, dissonance, rapid changes of mood, rhetoric and wit, music which looks forward to Haydn and Beethoven. For the purposes of comparison, Mahan also included in his programme a sonata by Georg Anton Benda, a Bohemian disciple of Emmanuel. More sparely scored, it lacked the immediate “shock value” of Emmanuel’s writing, yet included many distinctive facets – drama and tension, a recitative-like slow movement and a spirited finale – and was performed with great elegance and sensitivity.

On first glance, Rain Dreaming by Toru Takemitsu may seem an odd choice in a programme dedicated to Baroque and early classical music, but the piece worked well, providing an interesting contrast and a pause for reflection. There were echoes of Emmanuel’s unexpected dissonances and Couperin’s poetry within Takemitsu’s writing , yet the work is also highly lyrical in its explorations of tonality.

This was a concert of bravura playing, combined with wit and intelligence to create a thoroughly engaging concert, which challenged pre-conceived notions about the harpsichord and the music of the Baroque and Rococo periods. Mahan’s entertaining and informative introduction (given after the Couperin) and his interesting and quirky programme notes (in which he described Frederick II as an eighteenth-century “hipster”) undoubtedly contributed to a most enjoyable and imaginative evening of music making. Highly recommended.

Meet the Artist……Mahan Esfahani

www.mahanesfahani.com

 

(Photo credit: Marco Borggreve)

PR new3 Copyright Mary Robert

Pascal Rogé at Wigmore Hall

Acclaimed French pianist Pascal Rogé gave a lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall on Monday featuring works by three towering figures of French piano music – Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. The hour-long concert afforded the audience a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the most wondrous pianism, from the graceful, subtly nuanced soundworld of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque to Ravel’s glittering Sonatine and closing with Poulenc’s vivid and characterful Les soirées de Nazelles.

Parisian-born Rogé has a deep affinity with these composers, with countless celebrated performances and an impressive discography. I have enjoyed Rogé’s pianism on disc and have for a long time wanted to hear him live.

Debussy’s Suite bergamasque was written in 1890 and owes much to the poet Paul Verlaine and his Fêtes galantes.Verlaine in turn was inspired by the painter Watteau, whose works evoked the elegant and frivolous pleasures of eighteenth-century French society, and his poems – and Debussy’s Suite – also draw inspiration from the Italian Comedia del’arte.

Debussy’s writing is subtle and elusive in rhythm and harmony, with an undercurrent of sadness and poignancy which runs through the four movements. Roge’s lucid playing highlighted many of the details, layers and nuances in the music which other performers may overlook, too keen to emphasise the “impressionistic” nature of Debussy’s writing (a term which the composer himself despised). There was vibrancy too, in the ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Passepied’, emphasised by sensitive pedalling and a clear sense of line. No muddy soundwashes here, ‘Clair de Lune’ seemed to float, suspended and shimmering, yet with a gorgeous clarity too.

When Ravel composed his Sonatine he had already completed Jeux d’Eau, an inspired addition to the impressionist repertoire of the piano, and it seemed unlikely he would turn back to a classical antecedent. However, he was tempted by a competition for the first movement of a sonatina: as it turned out, he was the only entrant. The delicate figurations, which act as an accompaniment (together with the bass line) in the first movement, clearly show the influence of the “running water” arpeggiated figures of Jeux d’Eau.

As in the Debussy, so in Ravel Rogé displayed remarkable precision combined with sensitivity in touch, articulation, tonal shading, phrasing and voicing, all coupled with an astonishing control of the piano which results in the most delicious, sparkling palette of sounds and colours. His magical sense of timing and spare rubato in the opening movement was, for me, one of the most wondrous moments in the entire recital.

In contrast to the intricate traceries of Ravel and Debussy’s kaleidoscopic soundworld, Poulenc’s Les Soirées des Nazelles was bold and spirited, full of improvisatory passages and rapid shifts of mood, dynamic and tempo. Rogé gave a rich and full-blooded performance, which really brought the virtuosic nature of this suite to life.

Satie’s rarely heard Gnossienne No. 5 was the encore – voluptuous in tone, simple and tasteful, a delight!

 

Meet the Artist……Pascal Rogé

(picture credit: Mary Robert)

 

Vatche Jambazian at the 1901 Arts Club

Occasionally one experiences something really remarkable at a concert: Maurizio Pollini playing the Boulez Second Sonata, Marc-André Hamelin making sense of the craggy edifice that is Charles Ives’ ‘Concord’ Sonata. And last night, it was young Armenian-Australian pianist Vatche Jambazian playing Galina Ustvolskaya’s Piano Sonata No. 5 at the season finale of the South London Concert Series. This was not at the Royal Festival Hall, nor the Wigmore, but the 1901 Arts Club, just five minutes from the Southbank Centre, a beautiful small venue in a former Victorian schoolmaster’s house.

Vatche Jambazian
Vatche Jambazian

A graduate of the University of Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music, Vatche is already carving an impressive professional career with a busy concert schedule and an equally full teaching roster, and he has an enthusiastic following, judging by the crowded salon at the venue and the noisy post-concert party upstairs.

Unlike some up-and-coming young artists, Vatche doesn’t play crowd-pleasers: his repertoire choices for the South London Concert Series (SLCS) were challenging and eclectic: it was his choice of repertoire that prompted the organisers of the concert to call it ‘Eastern Accents’, with its special emphasis on music from Russia. But just to prove that he is equally at home with “mainstream” classical repertoire, he opened his programme with Haydn’s B minor Sonata, a darkly sardonic work whose final movement could be mistaken for the work of a youthful Beethoven. The performance was rich in colour, witty and crisply phrased, particularly in its outer movements.

Vatche’s assertion that Galina Ustvolskaya’s Piano Sonata No. 5 was “not for the faint-hearted” was more than borne out in a performance of great clarity and control. Composed in 1986, and initially banned by the Soviet authorities, this is a work which contains chord clusters and violent dynamic contrasts, and makes full use of the range, resonance and sonority of the modern piano. It is not easy listening, challenging and at times brutal, yet Vatche’s powerful communication drew the audience into this extraordinary soundworld with its dissonances and chiming bells. The piece also confirmed one of the key missions of the SLCS: to put lesser-known and rarely performed repertoire before an audience in a salon setting which recalls the European cultural and musical salon of the nineteenth century.

“Absolutely fantastic…..Vatche I salute you! Such control, power and energy!” Lorraine Banning, audience member

Shostakovich followed, fittingly, for he was Ustvolskaya’s teacher, with an exuberant and technically demanding Prelude and Fugue in D-flat from the Opus 87. Returning to the piano after performances by supporting artists Alex Ewan (violin, in de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance) and Frances Wilson (Takemitsu and Rachmaninoff), Vatche concluded the concert with an energetic and colourful rendition of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in A minor. It was a rollicking finale to what has been an exciting and popular first season for the South London Concert Series.

There were also performances by supporting artists Jose Luis Gutierrez Sacristan (Villa-Lobos and Granados) and SLCS co-founder Lorraine Liyanage (Khatchaturian and Auerbach), and the audience had the opportunity to mingle with the performers in the bar at the 1901 Arts Club after the concert.

Founded and curated by Lorraine Liyanage and Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist), this innovative concert series offers amateur and semi-professional musicians the opportunity to perform alongside young and emerging professional artists in the same formal concert setting. The series has a special focus on lesser-known and rarely-performed piano repertoire, and has featured young professional artists Helen Burford and Emmanuel Vass in its first season. Praised for its unique and accessible approach to music making, the series combines quality chamber music with socialising to recreate the ethos of the nineteenth-century musical salon.

“A wonderfully creative idea” – Peter Donohoe, internationally-acclaimed concert pianist.

The South London Concert Series 2014/15 season launches in September 2014 with a new concept – Notes&Notes – a music and words event in which acclaimed pianist and teacher Graham Fitch will discuss and perform music by Bach and Haydn. The concert is at Craxton Studios in Hampstead, former home of pianist and teacher Harold Craxton, and will be followed by afternoon tea.

“The South London Concert Series is both innovative and traditional. Events blend an appreciation of fine music and music making with conviviality, and blur the artificial distinctions between professional and amateur”
James Lisney, international concert pianist

Full details of all SLCS events here www.slconcerts.co.uk

View photographs from the concert

 

 

 

Paul Badura-Skoda at St John’s, Smith Square

Paul Badura-Skoda (Photo @ DR)
Saturday 10th May, 2014 – St John’s, Smith Square, London
Chopin
Waltzes – A minor, Op.34/2, C sharp minor, Op.64/2, D flat, Op.64/1; Nocturne, op. posth., Four Mazurkas, op. 30, Barcarolle, op. 60
Schubert
Impromptu in B-flat D935 No. 3 ‘Rosamunde Variations’

Sonata in B-flat D960

The words “great” and “world class” are all too frequently bandied about in reviews and articles about musicians (and artists and writers too). But how does one truly define these over-used descriptions? If “greatness” comes from a life spent living with, and performing and writing about, some of the finest music ever written, forming a profound relationship with it and its composers, understanding with intimate detail its structures and nuances, then Paul Badura-Skoda is a living example of this.

Paul Badura-Skoda is a pianist I have long wanted to hear live. I was aware of him more as a respected pedagogue, writer on music and editor of works by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin and others. My teacher frequently refers to him, I have met pianists who have studied with him, and I have listened to some of his recordings (including his latest in which he plays Schubert’s final sonata on three different pianos) with interest and curiosity.

His concert at St John’s Smith Square was an opportunity for me and my companion for the evening (a fellow pianist) to share a unique musical experience – and one which will resonate with us for a long time to come. To attempt to “review” the playing, the pianism, the musical understanding and insight of such a master would be churlish.

Badura-Skoda created a special and intimate soundworld and atmosphere from the opening notes of the bittersweet A minor Waltz to the life-affirming closing cadence of Schubert’s final Piano Sonata, a place where generosity of spirit and good humour ruled, a place of great intimacy, as if we had been invited into his own musical salon for the evening. Of course, Paul Badura-Skoda is steeped in that particular European tradition of music-making, and his teacher, Edwin Fischer, connects him to an earlier golden age of music making and culture.

Despite his age (86), Badura-Skoda cuts a sprightly figure (compare his twinkling eyes and brisk gait with the frailer Maurizio Pollini at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in April, who is more than 10 years Badura-Skoda’s junior) and displayed an obvious pleasure in being at St John’s Smith Square. And if there were some smeared notes and uncertain rhythms, the overall effect was of a musician who has lived with this music for many years and whose knowledge and understanding allowed the music to speak for itself, free of ego and unnecessary gestures.

Before the Sonata in B flat, D960, Paul Badura-Skoda said a few words about the piece, how he regarded it as Schubert’s “farewell” (it was completed less than two months before the composer’s death in 1828), and how the sublime opening theme suggests the words of a hymn or prayer. The first movement had a spacious serenity in the main theme, and the range of colours and nuances which Badura-Skoda brought to the music shone a new light on a familiar work for me: for example, the bass trills were voiced differently each time which gave them a greater resonance and sense of foreboding, and the exposition repeat was observed. The slow movement’s ominous tread was relieved by a middle section of great warmth. The third movement bubbled with all the exuberance of a mountain stream, the darker Trio hardly interrupting the mood, while the finale had drive and energy coupled with wit and humour, despite one or two uneven moments. This was an engaging and entirely satisfying performance, which was met, deservedly, in my opinion, with a standing ovation.

A week of music……

A busy week of enjoyable and varied concerts in Brighton and London. Here’s my round up:

Sunday 4th May – Helen Burford, piano, Brighton

Helen has a particular interest in contemporary British and American music, and an unerring ability to create imaginative and eclectic concert programmes which combine her interests with more mainstream repertoire. For her afternoon recital as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival, she opened with Somei Satoh’s haunting Incarnation II, a work which allows one to fully appreciate the full range of sounds and resonance possible on the piano. An extraordinarily absorbing and unusual work. The Japanese connection continued with Debussy’s evocative Pagodes, followed by Haydn’s C major Piano Sonata Hob. XVI No. 50 with two witty and sprightly outer movements enclosing a slow movement played with expression and warmth. In typical style, Helen cleverly paired Hush-A-bye, a work by contemporary American composer Julie Harris, with Debussy’s much-loved Clair de Lune. Both pieces recall nighttime – the first has night sounds combined with fragments from the lullabies, “All the Pretty Little Horses” and “Hush Little Baby Don’t Say a Word”, while the veiled harmonies and rippling semiquavers of Debussy evoke moonlight. Helen closed her programme with a lively and foot-tapping Rumba Machine by Martin Butler.

Monday 5th May – Jonathan Biss at Wigmore Hall

Biss is a musician I was curious to hear live, having enjoyed interviews with him, and his insightful and intelligent writing about Beethoven. His recital opened with an early Beethoven Sonata, Op 10, No. 2, and there was much to enjoy in his nimble and witty rendition of the first movement. However, the second movement lacked shape and the final movement was too rushed. The second Beethoven of the concert was the ‘Waldstein’ which lacked structure and a clear sense of the underlying “four-square” nature of Beethoven’s writing. The end result felt rather superficial. Sandwiched between the two Sonatas were selections from Janacek’s On An Overgrown Path. These were enjoyable but lacked a certain sensitivity to the emotional depth inherent in these miniatures.

Wednesday 7th May – Behind the Lines: Music from the First War, MOOT, Brighton

Another lunchtime concert, hosted by Music Of Our Time, a wonderful music collective organised by the indefatigable Norman Jacobs. This year’s focus is on music and composers from the First World War, and the concert, duets and solo works performed by Helen Burford and Norman Jacobs, was a touching, tender and occasionally humorous tribute to composers such as Cecil Coles (who was killed in April 1918) and Frank Bridge, a committed pacifist who was profoundly affected by the war. There were also works by Debussy and Stravinsky, and the concert ended with a four hands version of ‘Mars’ from Holst’s Planets suite. The concert took place on the 99th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, which gave the concert an added poignancy.

Friday 9th May – David Braid, guitar & Sergei Pobdobedov, piano

The end of the week and a concert at the delightful 1901 Arts Club, a converted schoolmaster’s house not five minutes from the bustle and noise of Waterloo Station. One of London’s hidden gems, the venue seeks to recreate the ambiance and ethos of the European musical salon, with its gold and crimson decor and friendly, convivial atmosphere. It is the perfect place for intimate chamber music, and this evening’s concert was no exception.

I interviewed David Braid earlier this year and I was curious to meet him and hear him in performance, for his musical landscape and influences accorded, in part, with my own interests. He plays an electric archtop guitar, more usually associated with jazz or rock/pop musicians. He makes transcriptions for this instrument, with piano accompaniment (his duo partner Sergei Podobedov), of works by Renaissance and early Baroque composers such as Byrd and Sweelinck. The concert included music by these composers and Bach, together with piano solos of works by Chopin (two Scherzi, handled with stylish aplomb and energy by Sergei) and Schubert/Liszt, and some of David’s own compositions. Taken as a whole, this was a most intriguing and unusual concert, beautifully presented. It is hard to describe the sound of the archtop guitar with the piano: at times it recalls the Renaissance lute (which David also plays) while also sounding entirely contemporary, thus making the music sound both ancient and modern. David’s own compositions were haunting, delicate, fleeting – the Waltzes in particular had great poignancy and tenderness – and his contrapuntal writing connects his music to the Baroque masters whom he also plays. One of the nicest aspects of the evening, apart from the high-quality music, was that during the interval instead of disappearing upstairs, the musicians stayed in the salon to talk to the audience, further enhancing the sense that this was very much an evening of music amongst friends.

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.