Performance review: Fraser Graham at Steinway Hall

For his first concert in London, presented in the recital room at prestigious Steinway Hall (which boasts a fine Model D), Rutland-based pianist Fraser Graham offered a broad chronological survey of some 250 years of classical music from Bach to Adams, and taking in works by some of greatest composers for the piano – Mozart, Schubert and Chopin.

Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in C from Book II of the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ was a pleasing opener, a “settling in” piece, for audience and performer. The Prelude was elegantly turned, unhurried and tastefully pedalled with some delightfully mellow bass notes. A lively Fugue ensued, and if some of the contrapuntal lines were not always clear, its uprightness and poise more than compensated for this.

Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A minor K310 is a work that confirms the second part of Schnabel’s famous quote “…too hard for artists”. It was composed in Paris in 1778, when Mozart was just 22, during a period of professional disappointment (he failed to secure a contract for an opera while in Paris) and personal tragedy (the death of his mother). Despite the composer’s age, this is a mature work, serious and turbulent, with a particular musical and emotional world all of its own.

Some pianists have a tendency to gallop through the first movement, peppering the frenetic writing with over-enthusiastic fortes. Not so Fraser whose slightly reined-in tempo only increased the sense of anguish in the opening movement. Passage work was carried off with clarity and accuracy, and throughout there was a firm command of the varying textures of the score, in particular the orchestral writing.

By contrast, the slow movement was an oasis of rich expression, with expansive melodic lines offering opportunities for some fine cantabile playing and subtle dynamic shading. The sense of urgency returns in the final movement, its swirling theme and slithering motifs all carried off with conviction. Throughout, the sonata was tastefully pedalled with fine attention to detail.

Schubert’s A flat Impromptu from the D899 set bridged the gap between the Classical and Romantic periods, with good attention to the ‘dancing’ bass figures and a climactic trio, leading us nicely onto Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Op. 9 No. 2. This is one of his most well-known and well-loved piano works, but there was nothing clichéd in this performance. Again, there was fine cantabile playing in the right hand over a serene waltz figure in the left. The ornaments and fiorituras were relaxed, giving them an improvisatory feel. This was music very much at ease with itself.

Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor was climactic and suspenseful, the contrasting moods and textures handled with precision and conviction, with a strong sense of the narrative line evolving throughout the piece, well-judged climaxes and an explosive, highly dramatic finale

The Skylark, Balakirev’s virtuoso paraphrase on Glinka’s song Zhavoronok, was romantic, liquid and expressive, with its soulful melody, delicate trills and Lisztian figurations.

Fraser finished with John Adams’ China Gates, five minutes of luminous and hypnotic minimalism, the subtle shifts of colour and sound sensitively executed – and, for me, the highlight of this enjoyable and thoughtfully presented recital.

Fraser Graham graduated from Birmingham Conservatoire in 2004, having studied under Malcolm Wilson and Simon Nicholls. He is an active performer, soloist, accompanist and event pianist in the UK. He teaches privately, and is also a teacher and accompanist at Oakham School, Rutland.

Fraser gained honours in his Guildhall recital diploma aged seventeen and went on to perform Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with full symphony orchestra aged eighteen. He was awarded his degree in piano performance in 2004 and now performs a wide variety of music. Recent recitals have included ‘An Evening of Late Viennese Sonatas’ by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert and several performances around the UK of Schubert’s vast song cycle ‘Winterreise’ with baritone David McKee.

Forthcoming events include a programme of Chopin, Ravel, Scriabin and Prokofiev which Fraser will be touring around the UK.

Twitter @fgrahampiano

Fraser Graham’s SoundCloud