Guest review by Simon Brackenborough
The 1901 Arts Club is a small venue specialising in chamber music, converted from a plush and cosy former Schoolmaster’s house, tucked away on a side-street near Waterloo station. I had come and hear the Australian pianist Nicholas Young, who was presenting a programme of music tucked away in the more hidden corners of the piano repertoire.
Young’s programme was a brave and intriguing, loosely based around 1920s London. First on the bill was fellow antipodean Roy Agnew (1891-1944) – a completely new name to me – who arrived in London from Sydney in 1923 and studied at the Royal College of Music. Young contrasted two of Agnew’s single-movement sonatas with the second sonata by English composer Arnold Bax (1883-1953) – also a single span, but of a scale reminiscent of Liszt’s famous B minor sonata.
As a long-time Bax fan, this made for an interesting pairing. The two composers share many stylistic features – both wrote highly passionate, romantic music, with frequent mood swings and harmonies dripping with chromaticism. Even Agnew’s titles mirrored the kind of language Bax used: ‘Sonata Legend: Capricornia’ of 1940 (Capricornia being a term for part of Northern Australia) and ‘Fantasie Sonata’ of 1927. Of the two, it was the former, later work, with its moodily modal melody, that left the more lasting impression.Both composers shared a fascination with the murky lower end of the instrument, and that gothic quality that, with rich harmonies, can at times erupt into bursts of menacing ugliness. Young dispatched these difficult works with admirable technical ease, teasing out the melodic charm hiding beneath the virtuoso decoration, hand crossings and all.
The late conductor and Bax champion Vernon Handley always emphasised the form underlying his apparently rhapsodic music – it is by taking care not to wallow in the episodes that the logic within becomes discerned. Young took a similarly no-nonsense approach to Bax’s second sonata, and it worked magnificently. Talking after the concert, he told me how the opening 30 seconds of the sonata had drawn him to the piece. Out of this eerie introduction, with its obsessive repeated notes and ghostly colouring, emerges a complex emotional journey, its enormous turbulence always projecting a steely, withdrawn face to the world.
If it was brave move to programme these composers, it was even more so to front-load the concert all with music of such intoxicating richness. The second half was dedicated to Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), a composer who spent most of his life in Berlin but who, Young informed us, admired Dickens and considered London one of his favourite cities. After the first half, his Berceuse was a relative oasis – the more measured take on chromaticism imparting a strangely frozen quality. The tripartite Toccata – a piece beloved by Alfred Brendel – took us further into Busoni’s eccentric neo-classicism, with plenty of pyrotechnics from Young to match.
As Young revealed before the third work, Busoni was not a huge fan of Chopin, that most adored of pianist-composers. Nonetheless he was taken enough with his Prelude in C minor enough to turn it into ten variations. The grave simplicity of Chopin’s theme certainly provides a framework ripe for elaboration, though the piece starts, counter-intuitively, with a strange canonic introduction before the true theme enters. The less cerebral variation form was welcome in its simplicity by this stage in the programme, with one of which was a waltz in itself cheekily marked ‘Homage to Chopin’. Young brilliantly guided us to the thrillingly virtuoso climax.
The rather eccentric world of Busoni’s music has been less well remembered than his Bach transcriptions, and the concert ended with the Chaconne from the violin partita no. 2, augmented by Busoni into something truly monumental. The piece is a natural concert-finisher, a kind of transcendent ‘back to basics’ that helps put everything else into perspective. It was a nice touch that, before he played, Young acknowledged that his programme was of fairly heavy hearted music, and invited us to consider the spirit of those times, between the two world wars, alongside our own. It seemed that at the close of Bach and Busoni’s cross-century collaboration, he drew out a well-earned touch of indulgent grandiosity.
Nicholas Young is a fantastic pianist, and if he continues to promote such interesting programming, it will be no bad thing in establishing a distinctive name for himself. But inevitably this adventurousness poses a challenge to the audience, who may not be inclined to give this less familiar music their time and money. It is a pity that even the small salon of about 30 seats was only filled with five punters, myself included. Such a fine musician certainly deserves better than that.
Simon Brackenborough is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London. He is the founder and editor of corymbus.co.uk, which features in-depth writing on classical music, designed to illuminate the art form for a diverse audience.