The 2020/21 concert season has been difficult for all of us, from the largest venues and orchestras to small, local festivals, music clubs and concert series like the Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Series (WLCC), which I co-organise with pianist Duncan Honeybourne.
Because of the coronavirus restrictions, we managed only three concerts in 2020 – one in February, before the first lockdown, and just two further concerts in October and December. Our autumn concerts were presented in accordance with government Covid guidance, which meant we could only admit a limited number of audience members (it goes without saying that the financial implications of reduced audience numbers are stark). But, like so many other musicians, promoters, venues and cultural organisations, WLCC adapted to the “new normal”: we have initiated an online and telephone booking system, and present two shorter recitals to allow as many people as possible within the current restrictions to attend. Our audience have adapted too, returning to our live concerts with enthusiasm, albeit in smaller numbers.
After five months of silence in 2021, our series resumed in June with a lovely performance by Duncan Honeybourne of piano sonatas by Schubert and Beethoven. It was a double celebration – the resumption of live classical music in Weymouth and also WLCC’s 200th concert (watch the livestream here).
On 7th July, pianist James Lisney closed our 2020/21 season with a generous, poetic performance of Schubert’s D935 Impromptus and selected Liszt transcriptions of Schubert’s Schwanengesang.
Schubert composed two sets of Impromptus, written late in 1827, the year before he died, and he numbered the D935 set 5, 6, 7 and 8, suggesting he intended them as a continuation of the D899 set.
The entire D935 is a much more substantial suite of pieces than the first set, and this is especially true of the f minor Impromptu, the first of D935, whose tone moves between quasi Beethovenian drama and assertiveness in its opening section to a contrasting, almost dream-like fragmented duet in the central sections. It is these sections which really tear at the heartstrings, yet James Lisney was careful to avoid too much introspection or sentimentality through sparing use of the sustain pedal, lively rhythms and tasteful rubato.
By contrast, the second Impromptu is serene and good-natured, its opening section reminiscent of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 12, which is also scored in A-flat major. A middle section of burbling triplets moves from warmth to regret with the introduction of the minor key and thence to resignation before the opening theme returns. A more lively tempo and bass highlights emphasised the waltz rhythms of this Impromptu.
The third, in B-flat, is the most famous of the set. A set of variations, its theme resembling the incidental music Schubert wrote for the ballet Rosamunde, this Impromptu is graceful and mercurial, occasionally tongue-in-cheek, and James brought an appealing sense of warmth and wit to the music, especially in the later variations where the textures grow increasingly florid, though never dense.
The final Impromptu of the set is a wild, stomping Hungarian dance, with brilliant passagework, rapid scales and arpeggios, trills, off-beat accents, and cross modulations which take the music to unexpected places, thus creating vibrant shifts in mood and tone. The piece ends with a rapid plunge down the piano, in a scale “which tells you when to clap” (James Lisney). It was lively and boisterous, with supple tempi and improvisatory flourishes.
James Lisney has a long-standing affinity with the music of Franz Schubert, and it shows in his naturally flexible tempi, lyrical treatment of melody and songlines, an appreciation of the essential drama and introspection in Schubert’s music, and an acknowledgement that the interpretation of this music is not settled, that it is in a state of flux. He brings clarity to this music through a thorough appreciation of Schubert’s phrasing and architecture, but also finds the essential “soul” of this music through an eloquent sensitivity to the tiniest details of the score, often revealing inner voices or unexpectedly piquant harmonies.
Liszt’s great skill as an arranger, and his sensitivity to the originals, is very evident in his beautiful transcriptions of Schubert’s songs, but this is also very much his own work in the way he changes the piano texture to provide a personal commentary on the original song text and the music. Liszt sometimes takes Schubert very literally, at other times he adds flourishes and embellishments, but he always retains the essential melodic structure of the song. These three love songs were contrasting, tender and intimate – appropriately, given the small size of the audience – and we might have been in Liszt’s salon, such was the intensity of feeling, closeness and poetry portrayed in these miniatures.
This was an extremely special close to the WLCC 2020/21 season, and a fitting prelude to the new season, which will celebrate the piano – as both a solo and a chamber instrument. The season launches on 15th September with a recital by Penelope Roskell, which will include Schubert’s final piano sonata. All being well, there will be no restrictions on audience numbers and we will revert to our usual practice of a single recital of 60 minutes at 1pm.
Watch the livestream of James Lisney’s recital here
Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts were founded in 2002 by pianist Duncan Honeybourne. Concerts take place once a month on a Wednesday at St Mary’s Church, Weymouth. Visit the WLCC website for full details and to join the mailing list.