Concert review: Helen Burford at NPL Musical Society

pianist Helen Burford
pianist Helen Burford

While the famous south London parakeets squawked in the trees of Bushy Park outside, inside Bushy House, home to the National Physical Laboratory’s Musical Society, Brighton-based pianist Helen Burford gave a lunchtime recital of great imagination and musical colour, demonstrating the full tonal, percussive and emotional range the piano can offer.

Now in its 63rd season, the NPL Musical Society hosts regular concerts throughout the year featuring a varied range of artists, both established and up-and-coming, and provides useful performance experience for young musicians in conservatoires and music colleges who are preparing for end of year, or final recitals. (Indeed, my own piano teacher played at the NPL when she was a young woman.) The venue boasts a rather stately 1911 Steinway, and the audience is supportive, friendly and interested.

Helen trained at Birmingham Conservatoire, the University of Sussex and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and has studied with a number of renowned teachers, including Heather Slade-Lipkin, Peter Feuchtwanger and Stephen Gutman. A champion of British and American new music, her NPL concert reflected her passion for this repertoire, with an eclectic programme of works by contemporary composers, including Martin Butler and David Rakowski.

Chick Corea’s ‘Three Improvisations’ offered a gentle entrée to the programme. The first and third pieces in the triptych, Where have I known you before and Where have I loved you before, were played with a wistful, sensuous sensitivity, while the middle movement was a lively, toe-tapping dance.

I have heard Helen perform Somei Satoh’s ‘Incantation II’ several times, and each time it has been slightly different, and always highly absorbing. The work, which has never been published, relies on the minimalist technique of prolonging a single unit of sound, while creating the sensation of a ‘rhythmic limbo’, a sense of stasis that is characteristically Japanese (cf the music of Toru Takemitsu). The music makes full use of the piano’s resonant qualities, creating a remarkable bloom of sound, which suggests a variety of instruments including cello, horn, bells, harp, drums. Building slowly from a simple opening, this music is hypnotic and meditative, and Helen’s controlled and intense performance made this an extraordinary and unusual musical experience.

Following this with a sonata by Scarlatti was inspired, for it highlighted not only the mannered elegance of the Baroque but also how revolutionary Scarlatti was, in his daring use of dissonance and unusual harmonies. It was performed with a lyrical simplicity.

The next work, a piece by composer Ester Mägi, named after an instrument called a kannel, a kind of plucked zither or psaltery, recalled the folk music of Mägi’s native Estonia with stamping off-beats and haunting melodies, to which Helen brought great colour, sensitive dynamic shading, and rhythmic vitality.

From the folk idioms of eastern Europe to the industrial western city in Martin Butler’s ‘Rumba Machine’, a celebratory fanfare-like piece, which suggests swiftly turning cogs and wheels of machines and the blaring sirens and honking horns of the city over a compelling rumba beat. This, together with David Rakowski’s witty Étude ‘A Gliss is Just a Gliss’, a study on glissandi, was played with an extrovert elan, bringing to a close a most enjoyable and refreshingly original lunchtime recital.

Helen will be performing a similar programme at the launch of the South London Concert Series on 29th November 2013 at the 1901 Arts Club. Further details here slcs1901.wordpress.com. Tickets southlondonconcerts@gmail.com

NPL Musical Society concerts take place in the Scientific Museum, Bushy House, National Physical Laboratory, Teddington TW11 0LW. Tickets £3 on the door.

Upcoming concerts this season include: 23 October – Joseph Tong, piano; 1 November – Madelaine Jones, piano; 11 November – Alice Pinto, piano; 22 November – Kathron Sturrock, piano. Further details Stephen.Lea@npl.co.uk