The genteel Wigmore Hall audience was startled by the abrupt slamming of the lid of the piano, heralding the start of a brand new work by a composer celebrating a significant birthday on the day of the concert. The pianist was Igor Levit, always very popular with Wigmore audiences, and the composer was Frederic Rzewski. As a student Levit was captivated by Rzewski’s music and asked the composer to write a new piece. The work premiered at this concert was commissioned by Wigmore Hall for Levit to play.
What can I write about Stephen Hough’s startling, stunning concert at the Festival Hall last night?
During the second half, between the miniatures by Debussy and Beethoven’s elemental Appassionata Sonata (Op 57), I leaned across to my concert companion and muttered that this concert seemed to be all about spontaneity and improvisation, the short works by Debussy which opened both halves of the concert, in themselves, and in Hough’s skillful hands, improvisatory in character, revealing the same qualities in the works by Schumann and Beethoven. One had the sense of meticulous preparation – and Stephen has talked before in interviews and articles about practising of the need to be “a perfectionist in the practise room” so that one can be “a bohemian” on stage – which enabled him to step back from the music and set it free.
It was an unusual programme. Other pianists may not have been able to pull it off so convincingly, and certainly opening with Debussy’s much-loved Claire de Lune from the Suite Bergamasque was potentially risky. The piece is so well-known, so prone to clichéd readings – yet Hough’s sensitive, unfussy shaping of this work saved it from saccharine sentimentality, and the delicacy of his sound and touch encouraged concentrated listening while also creating a wonderful sense of intimacy in the vastness of the RFH. It was as if we were in Debussy’s drawing room, gathered around his upright piano. And as Stephen said in the pre-concert talk, in the moments of the concert, we can “all be friends”, forgetting our differences of opinion or politics, joined in the shared pleasure of music.
In the programme notes, Stephen Hough explained that his choice of repertoire highlighted the very different approaches the three composers took to writing for the piano. While Debussy’s works (Clair de Lune, the two books of Images and the Prelude La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune) are “sensual paintings with mystical suggestions” [SH] (and even without the titles, their distinctive soundworld immediately conjures up potent, perfumed images in the listener’s mind), the two works by German composers are abstract and tightly structured with clear musical architecture.
And so while Debussy was light (feathery, but never fluffy) and delicately hued, the textures of Schumann’s Fantasie in C seemed all the richer in comparison, the composer’s passion for Clara all there in every note and phrase (Schumann often wears his heart on his sleeve), balanced by lyricism and tenderness, particularly in the glorious closing movement which seemed to evolve and expand there and then.
Similarly, the Beethoven felt wrought before our very eyes and ears, the opening measures creeping out of the mysterious darkness of the lower registers into something resembling light, if only briefly, the work fantasy-like in its range of ideas and striking contrasts. The outer movements were fraught with emotion, urgent and agitated, the middle movement providing a calm respite before the finale was unleashed upon us with, its feverish intensity all the more terrifying for the restrained tempo: this was music on the edge of chaos.
Stephen returned to Schumann for the first encore, one of the Symphonic Etudes which was rejected by the composer – a brief few moments of meltingly beautiful filigree traceries. And a Chopin nocturne to close this exceptional evening.
You know you’re at a special concert when the social areas around the concert hall, the bars and cafés, are abuzz with a very tangible sense of excitement? “When did you last hear him?” “I hear he is magnificent….. ” Add to that an audience populated by “important people” of the music world, including pianist Menahem Pressler (now in his 90’s and still playing) – it promised to be an exceptional evening.
It’s over 20 years since I last saw Evgeny Kissin live. That concert, the first solo piano recital in the history of the Proms, was legendary for all sorts of reasons – coruscating performances of works by Haydn, Liszt and Chopin and no less than seven encores to a record-breaking audience (over 6000). In the course of his career, he has been criticized by some for his rather cool manner, smooth perfectionism, and style over substance, but there’s never been any doubt about his consistent dedication to his art and artistry. Listen to his recording of Chopin’s Berceuse and you hear refinement in every opalescent note and multi-hued filigree passage: Kissin has musical intellect and, more importantly, he has soul.
No longer the shock-haired wunderkind, he is now a mature artist in his mid-40s; he has written a slim volume of thoughtful memoirs and has married his childhood sweetheart. He’s still got the phenomenal technique, but his stage presence is noticeably more relaxed (much smiling during his curtain calls). Yet his style and demeanour hark back to an earlier era, including the way he dresses (evening suit, black tie, even a cummerbund – a rarity at concerts these days): I think audiences really love this – despite attempts by other artists to break down the “us and them” barriers of the concert stage – because it reminds us of the huge sense of occasion a concert by a pianist of this calibre creates and preserves the mystique of the virtuoso performer.
In the programme notes, Kissin was described as a “titan among pianists”, suggesting both physical and metaphoric presence. In an article last year, The Economist billed him as “one of the world’s greatest living musicians”. Both statements are of course subjective – while also being true. He is “great”, in the sense of possessing an ineffable multi-faceted talent which makes the reviewer’s job so hard – for how can one truly describe what he does?
In keeping with his “old school” stage demeanor, he does not indulge in showy piano pyrotechnics nor flashy gesture for the sake of gesture. His mannerisms may be restrained but his playing is full of commitment and a passion which transcends romanticism: it burns with a hypnotic intensity.
Beethoven’s mightly Hammerklavier is one of the high Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, never undertaken lightly. In interviews Kissin has stated that he felt a certain maturity – which he now has – was necessary to tackle this monumental work (other, younger pianists are not so modest…..). It certainly gave full rein to Kissin’s magisterial powers, not just his technique but his musical intelligence too. He made the infamously difficult opening of the Hammerklavier – a rapid leap of an octave and a half taken in the left hand alone – look easy (and indeed the entire programme!) and launched into the first movement with a heroic commitment wrought in myriad sound. This work is so pianistic, its nickname a constant reminder that it must be played on a piano (and Beethoven was alert to rapid developments in piano design at the start of the nineteenth century: he knew a new instrument could produce the effects he demands in his score), yet also rich in orchestral textures and voicings, all revealed so clearly, so musically by Kissin. His pianistic attack may be direct, but his fortissimos never compromise on quality of sound, and his edges are smoothly honed. But above all of this, it was his pacing and natural rubato which captivated: a clear through-narrative combined with interpretative spontaneity gave this large-scale sonata a fantasy-like character, yet with a rigorous sense of the work’s overall architecture – even in the Adagio Sostentuto, where time was suspended for a movement played with an intense almost Schubertian harmonic trajectory and introspection, yet managed with all the improvisatory qualities of a Chopin Nocturne. Out of this other-worldly space came a finale of restless physicality and strikingly dramatic contrasts.
The second half was all Rachmaninov Preludes, a selection from Opp 23 and Op 32, works with which Kissin is fully at ease. As in the Beethoven structures were fully understood, while sound was sculpted, grand gestures deftly chiseled, delicate motifs etched in filigree touch and a gentle haze of sound. We felt the composer’s emotional depth, his yearning and nostalgia, without a hint of false sentiment or surface artifice.
Four encores afforded more pianistic marvels – a crepuscular, haunting étude by Scriabin (Op 2, No. 1), Kissin’s own vertiginously virtuosic Toccata (proof that he could have been an excellent boogie woogie pianist as well!), another favourite Rachmaninov Prelude (in C minor), played with as much energy as if he was beginning the concert, and Tchaikovsky’s Méditation. He probably would have played more, such was his eagerness to return to the piano at each curtain call, but regretfully many of us had last trains to catch.
Extraordinary, unconventional, interactive and fun are the words I would use to describe the launch of crossover artist and classical music pianist AyseDeniz Gokcin’s new album, A Chopin Affair: Sonatas. On Friday night [March 9th] St James’s Sussex Gardens near Paddington was surprisingly packed – people had to find chairs and create their own space to sit down. The audience was a mix of savvy young artists, bright-eyed students, middle-aged professionals and family members keen to grab a glass of wine, relax and listen to some scintillating Chopin.
The Turkish classical pianist has produced crossover albums including music inspired by Pink Floyd and Kurt Cobain from Nirvana. She recently told me in an interview, “if you look at history, Liszt was a showman and Chopin was very much behind the scenes…they were very innovative and active. We don’t have that anymore.” Breaking the mould, Gokcin sees a gap in the classical music industry, “although I do crossover projects, they have a message. There are issues that I care about.” Gokcin is on a mission to change society, one way or other, whether it’s through channeling classical works in a unique way or transmitting a social message about issues she cares about through brand new music.
Sitting on the right of the stage, by the grand piano, was street artist and Instagram star, Zabou and conceptual artist from the Royal College of Art, Tommy Ramsay. Both artists accompanied Gokcin in the art of painting as she performed Chopin’s Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 & 3. One sonata after the other, Ramsay and Zabou presented their own depiction of what Gokcin had prepared for them on the piano keys through Chopin’s music.
As a regular concertgoer, I am used to people turning off their phones beforehand, but here photography was almost encouraged. The audience took endless photographs of the entire event and despite the usual concert etiquette standards, it felt entirely acceptable for this relaxed and quirky event.
Although a late start, Gokcin was in good spirits and beaming with excitement when she came on stage. Presenting herself in a black laced skateboard dress, she expressed her personal relationship with Chopin’s music and her interest in his relationship with female writer George Sand with little hesitation. She recalled her years as a student, learning the sonatas and discovering the deep and emotional connection she had with the music from being away from home, performing in interesting and unusual venues such as the Kremlin in Moscow or a basketball court in Ecuador.
Piano Sonata No. 2 includes the immediately-recognisable Funeral March; a slow and sombre movement with a highly lyrical middle section. Gokcin’s dexterous fingers did not lose form in this movement. In fact, she appeared more focused and attentive. From the outset, the first two movements and last (Grave, Scherzo and Finale) are a feast of lyrical themes, varying tempo and dynamics. It was marvellous watching Gokcin perform with great control and confidence, sliding her fingers across the piano and never missing a beat.
The “Funeral March” sonata contrasts with the optimism and major key of the Piano Sonata No. 3. Gokcin encapsulated the serene and beautiful melodic tones in the Scherzo – Molto Vivace, and took the pace down a notch with the Largo. With Gokcin’s playing, she takes you on an infinite journey into the unknown, but you’d happily walk the same path for ever. Where the music was uplifting, Gokcin maintained the energy and where the notes needed emotional stock, Gorkin intimately fused with the music.
Interestingly, despite the more relaxed atmosphere, no one in the audience applauded between movements. Here was another of the very few concerts that celebrate the accessibility and inclusive nature of classical music. Maybe we need to take a leaf out of Gokcin’s book and find new ways to become more innovative.
Mary Grace Nguyen is a blogger and reviewer at TrendFem focussing on opera, theatre, dance, music and art. She holds an MA in Journalism from Birkbeck College, and graduated from SOAS with a degree in Anthropology and studied Modern Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In addition to her blog, Mary has also written for various online publications including LondonTheatre1, LDNCARD, Fringe Opera, CultureVulture.net and Theatre and Perform.
A pianist drums a rhythm with his fingers on the side of the piano stool. At first he appears to be simply warming up his hands, but the rhythm is insistent and repetitive. His fingers move up to the fall board of the piano, still drumming. His hand reaches around to the flank of the instrument, edging towards the gold Steinway logo. He stands and moves around the curved body of the instrument, still drumming drumming drumming…. Suddenly a red balloon flies out of the belly of the piano, twirling into the air with a comical farting noise…..
Another pianist curls over a tiny toy piano, picking out a quirky tune which, on that instrument, sounds like many carriage clocks chiming…..
A flautist yells at the end of a piece which requires overblowing, triple tonguing and other complex techniques
Welcome to the world of composer and pianist Stephen Montague.
In celebration of Stephen’s 75th birthday St John’s Smith Square played host to 24 hours of music making, beginning at lunchtime on Friday 9 March: 5 concerts during the day and evening followed by a performance of Satie’s bizarre Vexations – 840 repetitions (c15 hours of music) of a curious little two-line piece, played by a tag-team of pianists in hourly slots. In the crypt below a video wall (set up by film maker Rob Munday and Royal College of Arts students) showed a new film by Kumi Oda (a biography of Stephen Montague) along with short films by Alex Julyan, Rob Munday and others which ran throughout the day and into the long night.
The daytime and evening concerts featured works written over the course of 40 years, including some new commissions/premieres, and demonstrated the quantity, breadth, variety and richness of Stephen’s work. This is the man who had breakfast with Aaron Copland as a student and who spent 15 years working with maverick composer John Cage; who has lived in the UK since 1974 but who still retains very strong ties to his American homeland, not least through his music. He’s a composer with a keen imagination, sharp wit and a healthy sense of humour, who, in his own words, has lived his life “looking forward”, and who shows no sign of stopping now that he has reached his three score years and 15.
Stephen’s connections to the country of his birth were revealed most strongly in the first concert of the day, ‘After Ives….and Beyond’. One of the most significant influences on Stephen is the American composer Charles Ives, and in the 1pm concert pianists Mikaela Livadiotis, Yaoying Wang, Jiarui Li, Christina McMaster and Lewis Kingsley Peart performed a programme of works which paid a direct homage to Ives in the use of folksongs, hymns and spirituals, marches, jazz, boogie-woogie and the mechanised sounds of the 20th century, together with Ivesian tone clusters and musical collisions, strummed and plucked effects inside the piano, and the drumming on the piano case. These effects – and the later performance by flautist Rebecca Griffiths of Vlug (Speed) which uses extended techniques and overblowing – demonstrate, in my view, Stephen’s fascination with sound. Now that may seem a daft thing to say of a composer, whose business is to create sounds, but Stephen is a composer who likes to push the capabilities of the instrument to it limits to create deep dark rumblings in the bass of the piano, or ethereal strummed murmurs from its innards, proving that striking the keys needn’t be the only way to “play” a piano. Chords and collections of notes are used for their colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progression, and theatrics, surprise, chance and silence are also important elements. These things connect him closely to John Cage, who beleived that “all sound is music”.
The piano works in this segment combined Lisztian virtuosity in tumultuous passages with moments of repose, delicate far-away melodies and fragments of hymn tunes. The concert closed with After Ives (1993) which ends with an outrageously rambunctious and “perverse homage” to J P Sousa, whom Ives apparently detested, quoting his famous The Stars and Stripes Forever on the piano with Chopinesque melodic interjections and Lisztian extravagance, all masterfully and very wittily handled by Lewis Kingsley Peart.
In the second concert, Beguiled, Stephen paid homage to another of his musical heroes, Henry Cowell (1897-1965), a composer who liked to “live in the whole world of music” – an ethos to which I suspect Stephen also subscribes! This concert had an altogether more reflective, meditative atmosphere, showcasing works which draw on Japanese and Indian musical aesthetics, Blues, loops and phasing, and graphic scores. Highlights of the programme were Haiku, (which, according to the composer’s introduction, started out as a very short work (like Haiku) and became a long one): beautifully and sensitively performed from memory by Chi-Ling Lok, it was haunting, dreamy and ethereal, while the accompanying electronics lent a rather more unsettled backdrop to the work; Nun Mull, ‘Tears’ (2014) written in memoriam the Korean ferry disaster, commissioned and performed by Jenna Sung, who brought a plaintive tragic intensity to the work; Raga Capriccio (2017), a kooky work for toy piano and tape, inspired by Indian music, commissioned and performed by Helen Anahita Wilson, which sounded like many clocks chiming and the delicate the “ting” of prayer bells; and Eine Kleine Klangfarben Gigue, in which the opening measures of the Gigue from Bach’s First Keyboard Partita provide a ground bass over which other instrumentalists (in this instance The Ling Ensemble – two recorders, violin and bass clarinet) gradually winkle out hidden melodies. It was played with a wonderful sense of humour and spontaneity, the musicians leaving the stage one by one as the piece drew to a close.
A quick glass of wine in the interval and back to the hall for the 4pm concert which was concerned with matters of life and death. Dark Train Coming (2001) was written for harpsichordist Jane Chapman and is the composer’s response to serious cardiac surgery following a doctor’s warning that he could be headed for the “Dark Train into the ether”. The work has a frenetic, filmic quality, with passages in the first movement reminiscent of the soundtrack to a silent film where the heroine is tied to a train track. In the second movement, we hear Baroque arabesques gone mad, while in the third the player taps out a rhythm on the case of the instrument before striking notes which have the exact electronic timbre and insistency of a hospital heart monitor. The finale was a simple melody in the upper treble accompanied by a music box playing Brahms’ famous lullaby, which suggested the hallucinatory landscape of anaesthesia and coming to from a deep sleep.
The middle works in the programme – Folk Dances (2002) performed by Ian Pace (piano) and Madeleine Mitchell (violin) and Mira, performed by pianist Roxanna Shini – were rather more upbeat. The first work was infused with idioms drawn from folk music, jazz and Blues, the second an exercise in using only the white notes of the piano with forearm clusters to create a work of expressive warmth. The programme closed with a magnificently portentous and apocalyptic organ work, Behold a Pale Horse (1990), inspired by the Book of Revelation (“Not exactly a happy birthday message but ya gotta have a sense of humour!”).
The final concert of the afternoon showcased talented young people performing works from Stephen’s collections Five Easy Pieces and Autumn Leaves, together with the world premiere of Hound Dog Blues for piano duo. In his introduction, Stephen explained that he has always found inspiration and nourishment from working with children and young people, and this charming short concert celebrated the new generation. Stephen even performed some of the music himself which lent a lovely sense of shared experience to the concert.
Fortified by more wine and supper, we returned to St John’s Smith Square for the evening concert which brought together other instrumentalists, pianists and the Fulham Symphony Orchestra, who between them performed three concertos, a short ensemble work called Dead Cat Bounce (2014) with lively animations on the columns of SJSS by Royal College of Art students, and a humorous piece Texas Pulp Fiction which was an ode to the composer’s travels through Texas on a Greyhound bus.
Ritual Ode to Changwan (2017) received its premiere at the concert. Performed by pianist Jenna Sung and the Project Instrumental ensemble, it is a theatrical work based on a popular South Korean folk song realised by prepared piano and string orchestra. Once again, we experienced the extraordinary sonic worlds a grand piano can produce when the pianist barely strikes a single note. It was a concentrated and highly arresting work in which the piano took centre stage, though not in the conventional sense of a classical piano concerto, but rather as a piece of performance art, and which finished with Jenna leaving a trail of tiny roses as she glided gracefully off the stage.
Disparate Dances showcased Nancy Ruffer (flute) and Oliver Wass (harp) in a three-movement work inspired by Eastern European, Japanese and Irish dance forms, with a wonderful foot-tapping, exuberant finale.
The final work of the evening was Stephen’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1997). Scored in the traditional arrangement of soloist and orchestra and in three movements, it employs experimental elements favoured by Ives and Cowell, including fist and forearm clusters, and great walls of sound from the piano. The work draws on American vernacular music, folksongs and Civil War battle songs, and is an epic confluence of the composer’s American roots, viewed from the perspective of having lived away from the US for over 40 years. An intense, energetic and highly-charged work, it was performed with great gusto, vigour and elan by Rolf Hind.
Although the formal concerts finished at 9.45pm, the music was not over, and the performance of Satie’s Vexations, which had commenced at 9pm on an upright piano the crypt bar, continued upstairs as Norman Jacobs (New Music Brighton) appeared in the lift, playing the work on Helen Wilson’s toy piano. The music was then “transferred” to the upright piano and thence to the Steinway D for the overnight performance. Space was cleared in the hall for people to chill out or bed down for the night……. The all night count of repetitions was cleverly made visible by the RCA students’ real-time animation of expanding tree rings elegantly projected on the high walls and ceiling.
The whole event was a wonderfully vibrant and exhilarating showcase of Stephen Montague’s impressive compositional output, and the cheerful presence of the composer throughout the day – introducing the works, chatting to the audience – created a relaxed, informal atmosphere: this was very much music for friends, with friends and amongst friends.
It seemed fitting in the year of the centenary of Claude Debussy’s death for the pianist Denis Kozhukhin to devote half of a concert to his music, and appropriate to include George Gershwin in the second half. Debussy was undoubtedly aware of – and influenced by – American ragtime and jazz, and had an immense influence on Gershwin, and later jazz composers, including Duke Ellington, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. The ghost of the French composer haunts many of Gershwin’s works with their pungent harmonies, simple melodies and improvisations.
Never had Book 1 of Debussy’s Préludes seemed so languid, so laid back as in Kozhukhin’s hands: even the up-tempo pieces such as Le Vent dans la plaine and Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, or the capricious La Danse de Puck had a relaxed suppleness which suggested music played not in a grand concert hall but rather late evening in a Parisian café with a glass of something before one. Danseuses de Delphes set the tone: this first Prelude had an erotic grace, a hint of naughtiness behind the direction Lent et grave (slow and serious). Voiles even more so: was this a boat gently rocking on water, its sails barely ruffled by a warm breeze, or perhaps diaphanous veils wafting in an altogether more sensuous scenario? Kozhukhin kept us guessing, lingering over Debussy’s intangible perfumed harmonies, subtly shading his colourful layers and textures, and highlighting the quirky rhythmic fragments which frequent these miniature jewels. His approach was concentrated and intense – the frigid stillness of Des pas sur la neige was almost exquisitely unbearable – but there was wit and playfulness too, Minstrels prancing cheekily across the keyboard to close the first half with an insouciant flourish.
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