Craxton Studios, a unique house and ‘Atelier’ on Kidderpore Avenue in leafy Hampstead, north London, was designed and built in 1901 by the artist George Hillyard Swinstead for his family and as his art studio. The house was bought by eminent and much-loved pianist and teacher Harold Craxton and his wife Essie in 1945 after they and their family were bombed out of their home in St. John’s Wood during the Blitz. Their six children included the distinguished oboist Janet Craxton; the painter John Craxton R.A. (who illustrated Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books, amongst other things) and the BBC’s Royal events television director Antony Craxton C.V.O. Professor Harold Craxton O.B.E (Royal Academy of Music) lectured, taught and entertained at the house and accompanied some of the finest singers and musicians of the day. The house became a hub for music and the arts, and was frequented by such artistic luminaries as Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Sir Frederick Ashton, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Winifred Atwell, Dame Janet Baker, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Lennox Berkeley, Sir John Betjeman, Pierre Boulez, Julian Bream, Benjamin Britten, Lord Kenneth Clarke, Johnny Dankworth, Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, Alfred Deller, Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Lucien Freud, Leon Goossens, Gerard Hoffnung, Witold Lutoslawski, Gian Carlo Menotti, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Sir Henry Moore, Peter Pears, Mstislav Rostropovich, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Stephen Spender and Graham Sutherland. There are vestiges of these illustrious lives and times around the house in photographs, paintings, concert handbills and posters and other memorabilia. But the house is not a museum and still feels like a family home, which gives it a very unique and special atmosphere as a venue for concerts and other musical events.
For me, the name Harold Craxton will always be synonymous with certain ABRSM editions of piano music, and I still have my red cloth-bound three-volume edition of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, edited by Harold Craxton and Donald Tovey, and a faded mauve paperback of Chopin’s Nocturnes, even though I have now graduated to dusky blue Henle urtext editions.
Visiting Craxton Studios for a Sunday afternoon recital by acclaimed British pianist Sarah Beth Briggs was like stepping back into another era: the antique Bluthner piano, the Arts & Crafts decor, the audience and even the generous high tea after the concert all created an atmosphere of “music for friends amongst friends”, and a reminder of how music was enjoyed over 100 years ago. The concert was in memory of pianist and teacher Denis Matthews, who died in 1988. He was good friends with the Craxton family and visited the house on Kidderpore Avenue many times.
Sarah Beth Briggs studied with Denis Matthews for many years and the concert was her personal tribute to an adored and inspirational teacher. All the pieces she played had a special connection for her with Dennis, and indeed the opening piece, Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor K475, was the first piece Sarah heard Denis perform in a concert in Newcastle, when she was still quite a young child. As she explained in her engaging introduction, it was also the piece that convinced her that Mozart could be as dramatic and colourful as Beethoven. It was a persuasive and authoritative opener and tied in neatly with Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ Sonata which followed it, the Beethoven highlighting many aspects of Mozart’s writing.
After such a dramatic first half, Sarah then played a Debussy Prelude, explaining that Denis loved the music of Claude Debussy, and she and he spent many hours working on the first book of Preludes together. Des pas sur la neige is a brief and icy excursion into a snowy landscape, the ascending figure in the left hand in the opening (and shared between the hands later in the piece) suggesting feet trudging through snow. This was followed by Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, prefaced by an introduction by Sarah in which she quoted the late John Ogdon’s description of the work: “it lasts only twelve minutes…..it contains the experience of a lifetime”. Sarah gave a passionate and engrossing account of this perhaps the most popular and complex of all of Chopin’s Ballades.
After the performance, Sarah explained that Denis had always felt it was inappropriate to follow Chopin’s Ballade with an encore, and in his spirit she simply thanked the audience for coming before taking a final curtain call. We were then directed into the dining room of the house where a magnificent high tea was laid out: tiny sandwiches and canapés, petit fours, and several different cakes (most of which were homemade). While the guests were filling their plates with delicacies, the organisers had cleared the studio of chairs and laid out tables with white cloths. Tea was served in the studio where the concert had taken place, providing a very civilised and quaintly old-fashioned end to a very enjoyable afternoon of music making, the pieces played with obvious affection and imbued with very special memories for the pianist. I was delighted to be a guest at such a gathering and to have the opportunity to talk to Sarah afterwards.
My review of Sarah’s new recording of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert