I can think of few better ways to spend a weekday evening than listening to a sensitive and skilled pianist such as Mark Swartzentruber playing Chopin’s Four Ballades – and on Wednesday evening I was afforded the opportunity to do just that, in the comfort of a private house in a quiet residential street in Chiswick, west London.
The house was the elegant home of Japanese pianist Rika Zayasu, founder and artistic director of Wednesday Afternoons Music, a non-profit organisation which hosts a series of concerts and workshops on Wednesday afternoons and early evenings. The format is very simple: a group of invited guests arrive at Rika’s home, where we are directed to the living room to enjoy a drink and socialising before the concert begins. Afterwards, there is more socialising and drinks, and an opportunity to meet the performer.
I love hearing music performed in a setting such as this. It brings one closer to music and performer, is highly accessible, friendly and informal, a shared experience which reminds us that the majority of music written before 1850 would have been performed in such a setting. Indeed, on Wednesday evening, with the light fading outside, and a group of friends and music lovers seated in a friendly semi-circle, we could have been in a nineteenth-century Parisian Salon.
Chopin’s Ballades are some of his most popular works for piano (pianist Mark Swartzentruber admitted that they were his favourite of all Chopin’s piano works), and are performed frequently, either as a set of four, singly, or in pairs. To hear all four consecutively in one concert is a fascinating and rewarding experience. Although each has its own individual character, there are connecting threads through all of them: the use of lilting rhythms, the sense of a narrative unfolding, the recapitulation of themes and motifs, high virtuosity and intricate fiorituras and cadenzas offset by passages of great beauty and lyricism. Taken together, the Ballades create a rich and absorbing programme, and Mark’s playing of them was thoughtful and eloquent.
After enthusiastic applause and “bravos!”, Mark played Chopin’s Barcarolle, a wistful, mellifluous piece whose rocking rhythms and ringing chords in thirds and sixths evoke the swell of the sea. It was a charming close to a highly enjoyable concert.
There was time to socialise afterwards, and I enjoyed talking to a number of the guests, including a young composer who has written some piano works for Rika, and of course to Rika, and to Mark (we discussed the merits – and otherwise – of using an iPad in performance, one’s attachment to paper scores, and the exigencies of practising, amongst other things).
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