What is it about the Goldberg Variations which gives them such an enduring appeal? Two new recordings have been released in as many months, by two leading pianists of the 21st-century, yet each quite different in their approach. Maybe it is because Bach gives few performance directions, a lack of specificity which allows performers the freedom to make personal choices about the interpretative possibilities of this music. This is certainly true of these two new recordings.

Lang Lang’s Goldbergs (DG), released in September as a double album of studio and live recordings, is bright in sound and lavish in presentation. Some of the tempi are questionable, with elastic rubato stretched just a little too far, presumably intended to convey meaning or deep emotion, and the faster variations are rather showily bombastic. Listening at home, it feels like an extrovert and spirited concert performance, occasionally just too declamatory (though one can of course turn the volume down a notch or two!), but I have to admit that overall I enjoyed Lang Lang’s Goldbergs. There’s a freshness in his approach and he manages a singing tone with a bright, colourful piano sound, and I take issue with those who have suggested that he should not touch this music, which enjoys such an elevated status in the canon of keyboard music. In my view, the music is there to be played, by anyone who chooses to play it, and Lang Lang makes a good case for being considered a serious musician, rather than a flamboyant showman (in fact, he is both) with his recordings of the Goldbergs.

At the other end of the spectrum, musically and presentationally, is the young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, whose concert performances and recordings are imbued with a special sensitivity and emotional intelligence. Modest in mannerisms and presence, Kolesnikov could not be further from Lang Lang.  Rightly described as a “poet” of the piano, he can nuance his touch and dynamics in such a way that the slightest shift in sonority speaks volumes in terms of mood and narrative.

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With these qualities to his playing, it is no surprise that Kolesnikov’s version of the Goldbergs is rich in intimacy, reminding us that this music was, it is said, composed as a distraction for the insomniac Baron (later Count) Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador at the Dresden electoral court. The famous opening Aria barely announces itself, gently insinuating its simple, elegant melody into the ear and the consciousness. In Kolesnikov’s hands it’s a miniature study in elegance and other-worldly serenity. A calmness flows through the music, setting the tone for the entire work. Even in the up tempo or more lively variations, where there is palpable drama and robustness, Kolesnikov still retains an underlying sense of measured thoughtfulness.

But for me it is his touch which really captivates and delights: filigree ornaments and trills, passage work in which his quicksilver fingers appear to float across the keys, yet without losing definition. His textures flicker in and out of focus – now crispy defined, now delicately veiled and muted, yet throughout there is clarity of articulation, structure and musical vision.

And there is one particular moment which really stops you in your tracks – and may have Bach purists clutching at their pearls. Did he really do that? Variation 30 segues from the one before it in a bloom of sound, the sustaining pedal creating an unexpected and intriguing extra sonic layer before fading away to allow the Aria to return like a memory of times past.

This recording is the result of Kolesnikov’s collaboration with dancer and choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and the spirit of the dance, which infuses so much of Bach’s music, is never far away in the delightful playfulness of Kolesnikov’s approach to Bach’s rhythms and counterpoint. This is an exquisitely tasteful and original account, recorded on a modern Yamaha grand piano on which Kolesnikov manages to recreate the softly-spoken sonorities of a clavichord or fortepiano (in preparing for the recording Kolesnikov worked on a number of different instruments “switching between them, in order to loosen up a little, to shake up my perception of sound of piano“.

What these two recordings prove – and the many, many others which exist – is that the Goldberg Variations is music without consensus: there are clichés about how Bach’s music should be played – from the period instrument zealots to the iconoclasts – and traditional views about how it should be played on the modern piano, but in fact there is no “right way”, nor who should play it, and the Goldberg Variations remain extraordinarily fertile terrain for those who choose to walk there.


Photo credit: Eva Vermandel

Good Night! – Bertrand Chamayou, piano (Erato/Warner Classics)

Don’t listen to this album if you’ve got work to do or a project to complete. This captivating, engrossing album of lullabies, or berceuses, will make you want to ease back in your chair, or retreat to somewhere more comfortable – perhaps a chaise longue, or even your bed. Turn the lights low and allow pianist Bertrand Chamayou’s exquisite, expressive soundworld to envelope you (the album is recorded in Dolby Atmos immersive sound which is at once intimate and vivid).

For Chamayou, a self-confessed night owl who resists the calls of Morpheus and relishes the tension between the awake and almost-but-not-quite asleep states, the lullaby’s “place is halfway between dream and reality”, a curious borderland of the most varied emotions, from tenderness to fear (fear of the dark, fear of nightmares), delight to anguish when night thoughts can overwhelm and give little chance of rest. The lullaby is also representative of the special bond between babies and children and their parents and carers, who provide comfort and reassurance.

The inspiration behind this album was in part due to Chamayou recently becoming a father himself, taking on the roles of “tucker-up and comforter”. The piano repertoire contains some of the most beautiful examples in the genre, from the rocking bass line and delicate filigree figurations of Chopin’s Berceuse to Brahms’s ever-popular Wiegenlied (Cradle Song). But Chamayou also reveals some lesser-known lullabies by Lyapunov, Mel Bonis and Martinů. Nor is the night-time landscape always calm and restful: A probezinha (‘poor little waif’)from Villa-Lobos’ ‘Prole de bebê’ is tinged with melancholy; Busoni’s Berceuse is dark and hallucinatory, for which Chamayou creates an almost impressionistic wash of sound and colour, and Balakirev’s has a nightmarish funeral march at its centre; even Grieg’s Berceuse from Lyric Pieces Book 2, has an unsettling middle section; meanwhile, the spiky, tinkling notes of Lachenmann’s Wiegenmusik hint at the nighttime fears provoked by shadows dancing on the bedroom wall. But serenity is restored by Brahm’s famous lullaby which follows it. In Chamayou’s hands it is as warm and comforting as a mother’s embrace, enhanced by the Dolby Atmos sound which creates an enveloping resonance.

The album title comes from the first track ‘Good Night!’ from Janacek’s suite On An Overgrown Pat’, a piano miniature in which the briefest of ideas is obssessed over to produce music freighted with a poignant tenderness. Meanwhile, Bryce Dessner’s ‘Song For Octave’, written for his own son, has a hynoptic ostinato redolent of Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel and a haunting minimalist melody. Chamayou’s transparent sound here is utterly spellbinding (and it’s a piece I wanted to learn myself the moment I heard it).

At the risk of sounding a little trite, each work on this bewitching disc is lovingly played, Chamayou finding much beauty and elegance in simple lyrical melodies and gossamer figurations. His tempos are sensitive and supple, with an insouciant rubato which never feels contrived, and he convincingly portrays the individual character of each piece with clarity, wit and imagination.

We live in noisy, anxious times and this charming album offers much-needed respite and a balm to the soul

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Pianist Igor Levit is one of the heroes of lockdown – a “key worker”(!), if you will, who provided comfort and distraction in those anxious, early days of the pandemic. At a time when the concert halls of the world were shuttered and silent, Levit gave hauskonzerts from his home in Berlin, broadcast live on Twitter. Each day he would announce a programme and a time to tune in. He streamed more than 50 concerts, performing on a 1920s Steinway B that had once belonged to the Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer. He dressed casually and gave a brief introduction to each performance in German and English – no need for the formality and etiquette of the Wigmore Hall here. He played Bach and Schubert (a tear-jerkingly wonderful D960), Beethoven and Feldman, and people tuned in from around the world. His daily house concerts provided an anchor in a troubled sea.

Maybe for the first time do I understand what it means to speak of music as something life-keeping. It really keeps me alive. . . . I don’t care if it’s wrong or right, whatever B.S. that means….” said Levit in an interview with Alex Ross of The New Yorker. His house concerts challenged our notions of what a concert really is, reminding us that we don’t have to sit in stiff, reverential silence in plush red velvet seats to feel the power of the collective shared experience of music. Separated by a global pandemic, confined to our homes, music connected us, delighted, soothed and comforted us.

Levit’s new album, Encounter, which comes just two years after the release of ‘Life’ (my album of the year in 2018), confirms the spirit of his hauskonzerts. Here is music by Bach-Busoni, Brahms-Busoni, Reger and Feldman that seeks to comfort the soul and provide inner strength while expressing a desire for encounters and togetherness in a world fractured by a global pandemic. Like ‘Life’, it is another very personal album for Levit, the repertoire carefully chosen: these are “works in which all questions about love and death, loneliness and the possibility of real love for others are examined“. The pieces on ‘Encounter’ were those which drew especially positive comments from Levit’s online audience.

The entire album has a processional quality, leading the listener to the hushed serenity of Morton Feldman’s final work for piano – and the final work on this disc – Palais de Mari, a 28-minute contemplation, meditation, or what you will, of exquisitely-placed notes and piquant chords that fall upon the ears and mind like the softest of summer showers. It works in the same way as Bill Evans’ ‘Peace Piece’ did on ‘Life’ – the sentiments of the music match the intensity and spirituality of the works that precede it, yet it also provides a contrast in its delicate minimalist textures and hauntingly spacious pauses.

No one questions the spirituality of J S Bach, but Levit thankfully steers away from an overly-reverential approach which colours so many performances of his music. Alert to the contrasting characters of the Chorale Preludes, elegantly and occasionally flamboyantly transcribed for solo piano by Ferruccio Busoni, Levit finds vibrancy and immediacy, authority, solemnity and joy, and draws on the full range of the piano’s sound and resonance to highlight the voices and layers of this music.

Brahms’ six Chorale Preludes, also transcribed by Busoni, are rarely-heard as a set, and Levit successfully sustains the devotional, introspective nature of these pieces, almost to the point of intimacy. Reger’s transcriptions of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs) are similarly pensive, and Levit’s sensitivity of touch and musical imagination save them from becoming overwhelmed by the richness of their textures.

Reger’s Nachtlied, a sacred motet for unaccompanied mixed choir, provides the bridge to Feldman in this transcription for piano by Julian Becker. Its textures are more transparent, its mood gentler and more prayer-like, settling the listener in for Feldman’s music, which gradually retreats into its own world with a sense of closure and inner calm.

The album was recorded in May at Berlin’s Jesus-Christus-Kirche and is best heard in one sitting, as if as a recital – because here Levit manages to create a very palpable, highly concentrated musical presence throughout the recording.

‘Encounter’ is available on the Sony Classical label and via streaming services

Ann Martin-Davis, piano (Guild Music)

519yhdkc-cl._sy400_Maurice Ravel has been an enduring part of pianist Ann Martin-Davis’ musical life and in the liner notes to her new collection of his piano music, she relates an anecdote which gave her a special connection to the composer. Having played the middle movement of Ravel’s Sonatine to the renowned pianist and teacher Phyllis Sellick who was adjudicating a competition, Ann became Sellick’s “newest (and smallest) recruit”. Sellick revealed that she too had played the very same movement to the composer himself (introduced to him in Paris through her own teacher, Isidore Philipp), who had remarked that it was “pas mal” (“not bad”). When Ann asked her teacher what Ravel was like, Sellick replied that he was “all pointy – pointy hair, pointy nose, pointy clothes”. 

Ravel had a reputation for meticulous dress and reserved social manner. The image on the cover of the CD liner notes shows Ravel in an elegantly-cut tweed suit with a single carnation in his button hole, and this perhaps hints at the musical personality too: colourful, sensuous and flamboyant, but also intimate and tender.

Le Langage des Fleurs, Ann Martin-Davis’ new disc of Ravel piano music includes the much-loved Pavane pour une infante défunte, Sonatine, Tombeau de Couperin and a selection of the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, as well as shorter piano works and miniatures. As part of her research for the recording, Ann read (and recommends) Professor Michael Puri’s groundbreaking book ‘Ravel the Decadent’, which places Ravel’s music in the context of the late nineteenth-century cultural and artistic phenomenon of Decadence, rather than that of the Neo-Classical or Symbolist labels more normally applied to his music.

This is certainly confirmed in Ann’s approach to the music. While there’s a fin de siècle poignancy and intimacy to the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, elegance is tempered by an almost naughty playfulness and a hip-swinging sensuousness to the waltz rhythms, suggesting hidden pleasures of a more taboo kind. This is music redolent of the scent of Gauloises, Pastis – maybe even a hint of Absinthe –  cologne, and the heavy heat of the Med in high summer. Ann’s supple tempi and pitch-perfect rubato are balanced by crisp articulation and a lovely translucence of tone.

This is even more evident in the Tombeau de Couperin, Ravel’s hommage to thekeyboard suites of the great French clavecinistes Couperin and Rameau, and also a dedication to friends of the composer who died during the First World War. A bright, direct sound brings immediacy and drama while also highlighting the Baroque structures of this music. But it is not without emotion – far from it, in fact, especially in the Menuet, which is wistful and tender. The final movement Toccata, by contrast, sparkles with vigour, Ann’s airy, fleet-fingered touch bringing its figurations to life with vivid colour and imagination.

The music on this disc represents about half of Ravel’s output for the piano, and the smaller works, such as the insouciant À la manière de Borodine and the Meneut sur le nom de Haydn, sit well with the longer suites. The selection closes with the much-loved Sonatine, utterly beguiling in its delicacy and simplicity, impeccably and imaginatively interpreted by Ann.

If you, like me, were not able to get to the south of France on holiday this year (my holiday, like so many others, had to be cancelled due to coronavirus), this disc is a delightful evocation of the heady scents, sounds and ambiance of that part of France.

Recommended.

British pianist Sarah Beth Briggs has built her reputation on performing and recording the “core canon” of piano repertoire, and she has a particular affinity with the music of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert. Her playing is always elegant and tasteful, intelligent and sensitive, and in this new release she brings all these qualities to repertoire which she clearly adores.

‘The Austrian Connection’ traces the compositional links between four Austrian composers: Hans Gál (1890-1987) was perhaps the last great composer to uphold the tonal Austro-German tradition that began with Haydn and Mozart, and, arguably, reached its apogee in the music of Schubert (and also Brahms). Sarah Beth Briggs is a keen advocate of Hans Gál’s music – she made a world premiere recording of his Piano Concerto in 2016 – and the three preludes included on this disc perfectly complement the three sonatas which precede them.

As the focus of this disc is on Austrian connections, it is perhaps fitting that the opening piece is Haydn’s variations on “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser”, Austria’s first national anthem. From a simple hymn theme, a set of four variations follow, and where one might expect grandeur, given the theme’s significance, Sarah instead offers an intimate and charming account which provides the perfect introduction to one of Haydn’s best-known and loved piano sonatas, Hob. XVI/50 in C.

This sonata was written in 1794, during a visit to London, where Haydn discovered and – if this sonata is anything to go by – delighted in the sonorities of the English fortepiano. He fully exploited the instrument’s boldness, resonance and range, and expanded technical capabilities, in a sonata which is rich in inventiveness, characteristic wit and joie de vivre. The quirks and frivolity of the outer movements are contrasted with an Adagio whose beautiful cantabile qualities Sarah fully appreciates in an elegant and spacious reading. The translucent clarity of the piano sound in the upper registers is somewhat reminiscent of a fortepiano (though without the latter’s distinctive “twang”!).

By contrast, Mozart’s Sonata in A minor K310 is restless and urgent, full of striking drama and dissonances, but like the Haydn before it, this sonata has a slow movement of operatic lyricism, interrupted by a turbulent middle section. Sarah is sensitive to the music’s chiaroscuro, responding deftly to Mozart’s mercurial emotional shifts and the underlying intensity of this work.

In the Sonata in A, D664 we find Schubert at his most genial, though that affability is offset by the shadowy poignancy and tender intimacy of the middle movement. However, a sunny mood is soon restored in the finale, a movement of joyful light-heartedness. Sarah achieves a persuasive warmth of tone and sensitive phrasing which highlights the glorious song-like melodies in this sonata. There is chiarscuro and drama aplenty here too, and once again, these emotional voltes faces are handled with an eloquent sensitivity (Sarah is not a pianist who exploits the “psychobabble” surrounding Schubert’s life, preferring instead to focus on the details within the score to allow the music to speak for itself).

Hans Gál’s ‘Three Preludes’, composed in 1944, have classical characteristics interleaved with distinctly modern twists: the pithy quaver figurations and playful cascades, and quicksilver wit in the first and third Preludes are redolent of Haydn, while the middle one, “Lento Tranquillo”, recalls Schubert in its graceful melody and introspective demeanour. Sarah brings virtuosic sparkle to the first, a quiet, reflective poetry to the second, and a beguiling humour and lightness of touch to the third, which disappears into the ether in a delicate flurry of notes.

An enjoyable “recital disc”, which takes the listener on a varied and stimulating Austrian musical journey.

‘The Austrian Connection’ was recorded in January 2020 at The Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall in Leeds, produced, engineered and edited by Simon Fox-Gál, and released on the Avie label

Meet the Artist interview with Sarah Beth Briggs

71iqtbpqvfl._ss500_John Ireland      Sarnia: An Island Sequence

John Ireland      The Island Spell

Tchaikovsky      The Seasons Opus 37a

Tom Hicks, piano


At first sight, pairing a twentieth-century British composer with a nineteeth-century Russian romantic seems an unusual combination, but in this debut disc by young British pianist Tom Hicks the music of these two composers sits well together, creating an enjoyable recital disc of music inspired by nature and infused with pastoralism.

The disc opens with ‘Sarnia’, whose first two movements were composed in 1940 while John Ireland was staying on Guernsey, shortly before it was occupied by the Germans. There is a nice connection between music and pianist here as Tom Hicks hails from Guernsey; ‘Sarnia’ is the Roman name for the island. This atmospheric, dramatic and expansive work portrays aspects of the island and Hicks’ sensitive attention to detail and understated bravura brings this music fully to life with colour, spacious expression, pungent sonorities, and a tender poignancy when required.

‘The Island Spell’, inspired by Jersey and the earliest of Ireland’s Channel Islands pieces, is evocative and impressionistic, redolent of Debussy’s perfumed harmonies and filigree traceries (Ireland was described as an “English Impressionist”), its delicate textures rendered with grace and clarity.

Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Seasons’ follow, a suite of 12 miniatures which encapsulate the composer’s distinct style in microcosm. These characterful, contrasting works are the perfect canvas for Hick to paint a full palette of colours and expression, capturing their intimacy and wistfulness, with a keen ear for details and textures.

Overall, an enjoyable and engaging debut recording from this impressive young pianist.

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