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Vastly contrasting Chopin at St John’s Smith Square and Wigmore Hall

In the last week, I’ve been to two concerts which have featured the music of Fryderyk Chopin. The first, at St John’s Smith Square, was the second concert in British pianist Warren Mailley-Smith‘s wonderful and ambitious complete Chopin cycle; the second was a concert by young Polish Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, who performed the Opus 25 Études as part of his Wigmore Hall recital on 30th October.

Warren Mailley-Smith

Warren opened his concert with Chopin’s Fantasie in F minor, Op 49, a dark yet majestic work to which he brought requisite scale and grandeur while also highlighting the more intimate elements of the piece. The rest of the programme featured shorter works: a selection of Waltzes and Mazurkas, and in the second half the complete Op 10 Études. What was apparent throughout the concert is that Warren clearly adores this music. This may sound crass, but I believe it is important to love the music you play. In the many interviews I have conducted with musicians, most will express a real love of the repertoire they play and this is often a deciding factor when planning concert programmes or recordings. Warren’s affection for the music was apparent in every note and phrase and this was transmitted very clearly to the audience both through his sensitive shaping of the music, his elegant soundworld and his body language. Despite the size of the venue, he created an atmosphere of intimacy, amply demonstrating his appreciation for the small scale of many of the works played.

In his Études, Chopin elevates the student study into a work of great beauty and virtuosity – while also cleverly retaining the basic premise of the study, that it tests and hones one’s technique. I think the key to playing the Études convincingly is to treat them first and foremost as beautiful pieces of music. Which is what Warren did. It is fascinating to hear the complete set in one sitting, to appreciate their contrasting characteristics and moods, and to marvel at the range of Chopin’s imagination and powers of expression. In Warren’s hands, each was a miniature miracle, sensitively rendered and deftly delivered. His assured technique was the foundation on which he built this artistry and the overall result was exceptionally engaging and intense. I look forward to the next concert in Warren’s Chopin cycle, at the end of November.

Midweek, I heard Stephen Hough at the Barbican in music by Schubert, Franck and Liszt together with the premiere of his new Piano Sonata III, ‘Trinitas’. There is no doubting Hough’s formidable technique coupled with insightful musicality and this concert reflected this. It was a serious affair, only lightened at the end by the encores, but it was a satisfying and thoughtful concert.

Read my full review here

Finally on Friday to the Wigmore to hear Jan Lisiecki, billed as a “wunderkind” (a description that always makes me suspicious!). At just 20, Lisiecki has already garnered much praise, in particular for his recording of Chopin’s Op 10 and Op 25 Etudes (he has been signed to Deutsche Grammophon since the age of 15). I have read much about Lisiecki, some very fulsome, some not, and I was curious to hear him live. Unfortunately, his concert was a very patchy affair. The opening Mozart Sonata (K 331) was elegantly articulated, tastefully pedalled and with an understanding of Mozart’s orchestral writing, particularly in the middle movement. The Rondo all Turca, which certain pianists, who shall remain nameless, have a habit of thumping out at high speed, was witty and playful, undoubtedly helped by a more restrained dynamic.

Jan Lisiecki (photo: Mathias Bothor)

Things started to go wrong, for me at least, with three Concert Studies by Liszt, with further problems in Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses, which were largely lost in unclear phrasing and overly loud playing. After the interval came Chopin’s Opus 25 Études. The ‘Aeolian Harp’ Etude began well, with delicate figurations and a clear sense of the melodic line, but as soon as the volume began to increase, Lisiecki’s touch became heavy handed and unrefined. In the more energetic Etudes, we were “treated” to an unrestrained display from the “louder faster” school of pianism. The ‘Butterfly Etude’ bounced around the keyboard like an over-sized clumsy moth. Phrasing went awry in the noisy melée, left-hand figures were highlighted but made no sense, and by the time we reached the ‘Winter Wind’ Etude, the brutal hammering of the piano had become almost laughable. In short, this was an unnecessarily flashy and tasteless display of arrogant adolescent virtuosity, which seemed to bear little fidelity to the score, nor an understanding of Chopin’s distinctive soundworld (it is said by those who heard him play that even in the forte and fortissimo range, his sound never rose above mezzo-forte: this is of course in part due to the more softly-spoken instrument he favoured). I have a fundamental and ongoing problem with people playing Chopin’s miniatures (and the Etudes are miniatures – just very difficult ones!) on modern concert grands: just because you can harness an enormous sound from such an instrument, it does not mean you should. A sensitive artist will know how to temper the sound to suit the repertoire – and the acoustic. The Wigmore is a relatively small venue and the audience does not need to be hit over the head with the sound of the piano….. I wondered, on hearing Lisiecki’s playing, whether a teacher may have encouraged him to play that way, or whether it was simply the exuberance of youth. I also felt he is still looking for repertoire which truly suits his personality: when he does, I hope he may produce good things.

Stephen Hough premieres his new piano sonata 

Barbican. London, 28th October 2015
As befits this deep thinking musical polymath, the programme for Stephen Hough’s Barbican concert was carefully constructed to reveal every side of his personality – artistic, creative and philosophical. The concert showcased Hough’s new Piano Sonata III, written to celebrate the 175th anniversary of The Tablet, which Hough intelligently linked to his choice of other composers. The spiritual preoccupations of Schubert, Franck and Liszt match Hough’s own, but there were motivic connections between the works in the programme too: for example, the final movement of Hough’s Piano Sonata mirrored the grandeur and hymn-like qualities of Franck’s Fugue. Liszt’s Valses oubliées looked forward to Schoenberg and his cohort in their unexpected harmonies and fragmentary melodies, while Hough’s own work looked back to the 12-tone compositional technique, originally conceived by Schoenberg. There was also virtuosity aplenty too – in his own work and in two of Liszt’s Transcendental Études, which closed the concert.

Read my full review here 
(Photo credit: Sim Canetty Clarke)

Prom 38: Foulds and Messiaen excite and uplift

John Foulds – Three Mantras

Olivier Messiaen – TurangalÎla-symphonie

BBC Philharmonic

Juanjo Mena, conductor

A guiding thread of Hindu philosophy ran through Prom 38 which brought together music by one of the greatest composers of the 20th century with one of its neglected non-comformists to create one of the most exciting and uplifting concerts I have attended for some time. Works by Olivier Messiaen and John Foulds combined in a programme of ecstasy and excitement. The piano soloist in Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie was Steven Osborne, acclaimed for his performances and recordings of Messiaen’s piano music. He was joined by Valérie Hartmann-Claverie on the Ondes Martenot, a curious electronic keyboard instrument much used by Messiaen in his music.

Read my full review here

Prom 29: Rollicking Ravel and Squawking Messiaen

(photo credit: Paul Mitchell)

Prom 29 had a distinctly French flavour, featuring music by Ravel and Messiaen, two composers who idolized Mozart, whose music opened the evening. The concert was bookended by two works in which dance featured strongly, from Mozart’s elegant post-Baroque ballet sequence for Idomeneo to Ravel’s swirling, breathless portrait of the disintegration of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Ravel also looked to Mozart’s piano concertos as a model for his own, and the vibrant, jazzy G major concerto formed the second part of the first half of the programme, performed by French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

Read my full review here

Intimacy combined with heroism: Marc-AndrÉ Hamelin at Wigmore Hall

(photo: Fran Kaufman)

My final visit to Wigmore Hall this season (the hall is closed during August) was to hear one of my piano heroes, Canadian pianist and composer Marc-Andre Hamelin. Each of his London concerts I’ve attended has offered coruscating technical facility combined with musical insight and the impression of a thoughtful musician who is very connected to the music he plays. This is in part created through his economy of physical movement when he plays. There are no unnecessary gestures in Hamelin’s playing, no pianistic histrionics or flashy pyrotechnics (except in the music itself), and because he never gets in the way of the music, his performances are concentrated and intense.

This concert was no exception, its intensity made even greater by the inclusion of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, the “Funeral March”, with its third movement theme made so infamous by its associations with the deaths of Russian Communist leaders, and its extraordinary and ghostly finale.

Read my full review here

High-powered pianism: Francois-Frederic Guy & Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at Wigmore Hall


Hot on the heels of the release of their new disc of works by Bartók, Debussy and Stravinsky for two pianos, French pianists François-Fréderic Guy and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet returned to London’s Wigmore Hall to present a programme of music featuring these composers. Three 20th century orchestral scores written within just four years of one another – Bartok’s Two Pictures, Debussy’s Jeux and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – were brought to life in a concert replete in colour, rhythmic vitality, sensuality and split-second precision.

I first heard Guy and Bavouzet perform Jeux and The Rite of Spring in 2012 in a concert which brought fire, daring and vertiginous virtuosity to a weekday lunchtime at the Wigmore. To hear the same pianists in the same repertoire three years later was revelatory, for it seems as if the music has matured, like a good wine. This second performance was slicker, yet full of even greater spontaneity and vibrancy.

Read my full review here

Modest virtuosity: Murray Perahia at Barbican Centre

The London concert scene is alive with pianists and piano-talk at the moment. Hard on the heels of Daniel Barenboim’s acclaimed survey of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas, performed on a brand new bespoke piano with his name emblazoned across on the fall board, comes Murray Perahia, who like Barenboim is afforded the status of a demi-god, though more for purely musical reasons.

I’ve always admired Perahia. My parents took me to hear him in concert when he was a young man and I was a little girl. His discs of Chopin, Bach and Schubert are my go-to recordings for their musical insight, pianistic prowess and lack of ego. Perahia has worked with some of the finest musicians of the 20th century – Vladimir Horowitz, Pablo Casals, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Clifford Curzon – yet he wears his accolades lightly and one has the sense, when hearing him live or on disc, that he always puts the music first. He is the very model of a modest virtuoso.

Read my full review here

Daniel Barenboim: Schubert Piano Sonatas, concert 1

Daniel Barenboim, musical polymath, is in town for a four-concert Schubert Project residency in which he will traverse all 11 of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas. Prior to the first concert, he unveiled a brand new piano – one with his name on it. The Barenboim piano was conceived and developed in a collaboration between Barenboim and Belgian piano maker Chris Maene, with the cooperation of Steinway. What makes this piano different from the modern concert grand is that it is straight strung, and Barenboim used a Liszt piano as the inspiration for his eponymous instrument. It is said to offer a greater variety of colour, transparency and clarity across its range. Audiences at Barenboim’s Schubert recitals will have the opportunity to hear for themselves this new piano in action.

Unsurprisingly, it was a full house at the Royal Festival Hall and there was a distinct buzz of anticipation and reverence ahead of the start of the concert. Sitting in the rear stalls didn’t really offer myself and my concert companions a chance to examine the piano in detail. The piano remained firmly closed, lid down, until a few moments before Barenboim took to the stage, and was closed up again during the interval.

The jury is still out on whether the Barenboim piano was noticeably different to a modern Steinway, and any clarity and crispness of articulation, or nuanced dynamics are surely the result of the pianist’s technique, not the piano: one would expect an artist of Barenboim’s calibre to make even the most beat-up church hall piano sound lovely.

The theme of the first of Barenboim’s Schubert concerts was the key of A, as he presented three sonatas from different periods in the composer’s life. The D537, in A minor, was composed by Schubert when he was 20 and is the earliest surviving completed piano sonata, though it was not published until 1852 as the Op. post. 164. It begins with a dotted motif followed by filigree semiquaver broken chords. It’s emotionally charged and already demonstrates Schubert’s skill in unexpected harmonic shifts which colour the music. The middle movement, in warm E major, is genial and nostalgic, with a theme that would be heard later in the concert (Schubert “exported” it as the Rondo theme of the final movement of the D959). Yet, typically of Schubert, the mood shifts during the trio, a chilly march in A minor. The finale has a Beethovenian cast, with a dash of Haydn’s wit, yet already full of Schubert’s trademark unexpected harmonic shifts and emotional volte-faces.

I think many of us were trying to hear whether the piano really sounded that different instead of concentrating on the music, but the opening Sonata was presented with energy, though not always entirely convincingly, and keen sense of Schubert’s tonal palette, especially in the final movement. The middle movement, whose theme was reprised later in the D959, began genially enough, but the middle section had an ominous tread, for which the bass notes of the piano were suitably rich and dark.

The first A major Sonata of the evening is known as “the little A major” and was the most genial of the three sonatas presented in the concert.  Barenboim created a sense of intimacy in the first movement, but again one had the sense he wasn’t entirely convinced by it himself. It continued into the ethereal slow movement, whose pianissimos were, at times, barely a whisper. The finale was lyrical and good-natured, the opening theme played with a songful elegance, though I felt he pushed the tempo a little too much for my taste so that some of the lyricism was lost.

After the interval was “my’ Sonata, the penultimate of Schubert’s piano sonatas, the D959 in A major, which I have (perhaps recklessly) set myself the task of learning. I was extremely curious to hear Barenboim’s take on this big work, not least whether he could carry the narrative of the first movement right through to the closing sentence of the finale. My difficulty with hearing other people’s versions of this sonata is that they often conflict with my own, which can make me the most pedantic of listeners. I spend a lot of time with this Sonata. To say I eat, drink and breathe it might be excessive, but I often find myself waking in the night and playing it through it my head. The opening statement, a chorale-like sentence, lacked real nobility and drive and the propulsion towards the suspension at the end of the passage was lost in some curious pulling about of the tempo. There were one or two rocky moments as some of the triplet figures were lost – and this issue reappeared in the finale, where perhaps Barenboim was tiring (this is a big work – lasting around 40 minutes, even without the exposition repeat in the first movement), and overall I felt the movement lacked power and drive.

The slow movement, about much has been said, written and surmised, a melancholy folksong with a storm at its centre, lacked cohesion and there were some serious memory issues towards the end. The movement seemed relentless rather than revelatory. However, the scherzo was bright and crisp, with some sensitive highlighting of the melodic line in the trio section. The finale seemed rushed, the triplets often losing clarity, but the sections in the coda where the music stalls, as if to take a long breath, to reflect on what has gone before, were perfectly paced and the closing statement, a recapitulation of the opening sentence from the first movement, was emphatic. The standing ovation which followed was as much for Barenboim the man, the demigod, as for the performance and the new piano.

Bach in Barnes: Li-Chun Su plays the Goldberg Variations

Li-Chun Su is a Taiwanese pianist based in Berlin and last week she was in the UK for a series of concerts, supported by Kumi Smith-Gordon, creator of the imaginative Soirées at Breinton. I was fortunate to hear Li-Chun at the OSO arts centre in Barnes, and with an audience of just eight people arranged around the piano, the experience was intimate and intense.

J S Bach’s Goldberg Variations are considered to be amongst the finest music for the keyboard. Originating from a simple idea – a beautiful aria over a ground (repeating) bass – the thirty variations present the history of Baroque music in microcosm: lavish displays of modern, fashionable expressive elements of the high Baroque, with just a hint of Classical idealism, together with magnificent structure and formal beauty. There are dances and canons, riddles and doodles, lightning flashes and filigree arabesques. Not until Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was a similar work conceived on such a scale.  Li-Chun’s performance was vibrant, colourful and absorbing, showing a deep understanding of the structure, voicing and contrasting and varied material contained within the movements. The opening Aria was played with a spare elegance while the livelier variations were bright, poised and nimble. The slower variations were almost romantic with warm legato and sensitive dynamic shading. Li-Chun revealed herself to be a sympathetic and intuitive Bach player, and it was clear from her performance that she feels great affection for this music.

During the interval the audience were invited to vote for the pieces we wanted to hear in the second half. The choices included Schumann’s ‘Carnaval’, Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ and a handful of Chopin’s Nocturnes. In the event, Li-Chun played a triptych of works by Handel, including the variations known as The Harmonious Blacksmith, Mendelssohn’s ‘Variations Serieuses’, which tied in nicely with the Goldbergs, and Debussy’s ‘Claire de Lune’ and ‘Feux d’artifice’. Here she proved the breadth of her technique and musicality, a sensitive yet muscular pianist who is equally at home in Baroque repertoire as the late nineteenth-century. In ‘Claire de Lune’, for example, she revealed some interesting bass highlights, which are not always made apparent by pianists who prefer to focus on the melody in the treble. Her playing had a lovely lucidity which brought a special clarity to Debussy’s writing, something that it not easy to do.

Definitely ‘one to watch’, I very much look forward to hearing Li-Chun again when she next visits London.


Li-Chun Su kindly completed my Meet the Artist interview:

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music? 

The piano chose me. We had a piano at home. I love the piano and playing beautiful music so much. It happened without making a clear decision.

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

My teacher Gabor Paska, living in Berlin and supportive friends.

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

Four Liszt Concertos in one concert and Bach’s well-Tempered-Clavier Book I in one concert.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

The live concert recording of 2009 at the musical instruments museum in Berlin. I played Bach’s Well-Tempered-Clavier Book I for the first time without an intermission and almost achieved perfection in day.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Difficult to say. Time by time it changes.

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

I have usually instinct to sniff out what I want and need to play.

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

A lot of places. It is like making friends. I feel comfortable with some people, and some less.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

One nocturne by Chopin. I always play it after a good concert evening as an encore.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I remember well almost every concert

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

A love for the music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

A calm and confident feeling.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My passion for life.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

The process of making a thing come true.

What is your present state of mind? 


A native of Taiwan, Li-Chun Su received her musical training in Taipei and Berlin. She graduated from the Berlin University of Arts with the Konzertexsamen, the highest degree in graduate courses. She has studied with Tsia-Hsiuai Tsai, Laszlo Simon, Martin Hughes, Gabor Paska and Mitzi Meyerson.

Li-Chun Su took first prize in the Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Competition and in the Artur Schnabel Competition in 2007. In 2008 she was awarded the first prize in the Porto International Piano Competition in Portugal. She has had numerous invitations to perform across Asia, Europe and South America.

A lunchtime premiere: Richard Uttley at St John’s Smith Square

There was a palpable sense of tension and expectation as I made my way through the tourist crowds milling around the Houses of Parliament. Across the road, on College Green, the press pack was settling in for a long night ahead, tracking the results as they came in and offering minute-by-minute comment and analysis. Not far away, nestled amongst government buildings, is St John’s Smith Square, an English baroque church which is home to a wide variety of concerts, including an excellent lunchtime series. And on Britain’s 2015 Election Day it was a civilised oasis of culture for those of us attending Richard Uttley’s lunchtime piano recital.

Pianist Richard Uttley presented a programme whose theme was dance. Bookended by works by Bach and Beethoven, the middle part of the concert featured the world premiere of two movements of Matthew Kaner’s ‘Dance Suite’, which Richard commissioned from the composer. The first movement, Mazurka, drew many influences from the traditional Polish dance in its rustic rhythms but also from one of the greatest exponents of the form, Chopin, in its melodic fragments. There were references to Szymanowski too in the more reflective, haunting melodies. The second movement, Sarabande, was a more meditative and lyrical, redolent of the sombre elegance of Bach’s sarabandes which are found in his French and English Suites. Uttley is a keen champion of contemporary music and he seemed completely at home in this repertoire. In the lively ‘Mazurka’ he brought crisp articulation and robust rhythmic vitality, while the ‘Sarabande’ was graceful and sensitively shaped. This same attention to detail was evident in Bach’s Partita No. 4 which opened the concert. A florid and sprightly Overture gave way to a serene Allemande, given an almost romantic cast through Uttley’s elegant legato and subtle shaping. The Partita ended with a lively Gigue. Beethoven’s Sonata in A Op 101 seems to begin in the middle of things, as if we and performer have come upon it half way through. Its elegance mirrored that of slow movements of the Bach. This is offset by a lively March, which was emphatic and decisive. Another movement of serenity was followed by an exuberant finale, underpinned by that most stable of musical devices, the fugue, and played with much wit and vigour. As if often the way when contemporary music is programmed alongside more well-known works, the new revealed striking similarities in the Bach, Beethoven and contemporary works, while the old gave the listener a useful jumping off point into the new. I very much look forward to hearing further movements from Matthew Kaner.

More on Mazurkas here