Guest review by Malcolm Kyeyune

Loneliness is a feeling I have grown accustomed to as a black fan of Classical Music. Even in packed concert halls, I am often alone, the only black person. Like many similar situations, I often brace myself, shrug off the curious stares and focus on the task at hand. However, unlike other similar situations, this loneliness follows me on my morning run as I blast Tchaikovsky 4th, in the afternoon as I sway to Stravinsky’s intoxicating rhythms or in the evening when I tune in to Radio 3. I am listening to white music, composed by white composers, played by white people for a white audience. There is no me in this music.

But last week was different. Through the African Concert Series, I saw myself on the stage, I saw myself as the composer, the performer, the audience. I saw myself in the music.

The African Concert Series showcases African Art music. It was founded in 2019 by Rebeca Omordia (an award-winning Romanian-Nigerian pianist) and its aim is to promote the works of African composers. This year, the festival was hosted on Facebook and included an eclectic array of music from Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Morocco, among others. Performances included works for the flute, organ, voice, double bass, woodwind quintet and piano.

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Rebeca Omordia

Overall, the series served its purpose well. It fostered understanding of the origins of the music performed through brief synopses, and in so doing allowed its audience to fully immerse themselves into the cultures, traditions and circumstances from which the music was born. The performances, although often too short, were extremely passionate and picturesque, such as the thunderous Study No. 4 by Fred Onovwerosuoke, performed by Rebeca Omordia, which depicts a journey along the River Zambezi, and the virtuosic El Male Rachamim by Mohammed Fairouz, written in memory of Gyorgy Ligeti and performed by Marouan Benabdallah.

The series has not only been successful in giving a platform to the often-forgotten sub-genre of African Art Music, but has also had an unexpected benefit, according to Rebeca Omordia. Through exposure to classical music as African Art Music, more BAME people are more likely to listen to Western classical music, thus creating a more diverse audience.


Malcolm Kyeyune is an amateur musician based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He holds a degree in Business Economics from The University of Dundee and is currently reading Music at the University of Glasgow. As a student, his main interests lie in Music Theory and analysis; he also enjoys performing and writing about music.

Malcolm’s website


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beethovenpianoimage1smallTo Wigmore Hall on Friday evening, at the invitation of music publisher Barenreiter, to celebrate the recent publication of a new three-volume edition of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas, edited by renowned Beethoven expert Jonathan del Mar.

Prior to the pre-concert talk, I had lunch with an old pal from university. We hadn’t seen each other for about 30 years, and had only recently reconnected thanks to Facebook. Our lunch conversation was a mixture of catching up and reminiscing about a very happy (and, to be honest, fairly well-behaved) three years at Exeter University in the mid-1980s, a time when there were no tuition fees, when gaining a degree still held a fair amount of cachet, and when it was relatively easy to find a job on graduation. Talking about music, we recalled the songs and bands which had been so meaningful to us at that time – Talking Heads, The Communards, The Smiths, Prefab Sprout, The Beastie Boys….. I almost had to “reset” when I walked through the gilded doors into the plush crimson-and-gold foyer of the Wigmore Hall.

2020 is Beethoven’s year, and however you may rail against it, protest that he’s getting far too much attention, demand more diversity in concerts programmes etc etc, you can’t escape the Old Radical and his music (and maybe there’s an undergraduate thesis to be written on whether Beethoven was the original Beastie Boy!). There’s a good reason for this, in my opinion, and that’s because in addition to this being the 250th anniversary of his birth, his music is absolutely bloody marvellous! He is “great” – and that was amply demonstrated in Jonathan Biss’ performance, the third concert in his odyssey through the complete Beethoven piano sonatas at London’s Wigmore Hall.

The compulsion to play and record this music, combined with, more often than not, a fair degree of reverence, is very much alive and well – and each generation brings a fresh crop of pianists willing to rise to the challenge; Biss’ cycle at the Wigmore comes hot on the heels of those of Igor Levit and Llyr Williams – and all three pianists have released recordings of the complete sonatas (Biss’ final instalment is due soon from Orchid Classics). This music enjoys an elevated stature which goes far beyond the notes on the score, and despite some relaxation in the rituals and etiquette of classical concerts, the 32 piano sonatas are still regularly presented in an atmosphere of awed reverence. This was palpable when I and my concert companion entered the sacred shoebox of the Wigmore auditorium (as my companion commented, hearing Beethoven is like an anticipating a grand meal, with steak as the main component!). Any pianist who takes on the colossal challenge of the piano sonatas enjoys special respect: not only is this music physically and psychologically demanding, but the hand of history, tradition and expectation weighs heavily upon their shoulders.

intense, immersive, impassioned, hugely demanding and hugely enriching

Jonathan Biss, pianist

Friday’s concert was prefaced by a special event hosted by Barenreiter in which Jonathan del Mar talked engagingly about the process of producing another edition of the complete piano sonatas when so many already exist. He outlined the obvious prerequisites for the “ideal” edition:

  • It consults all surviving sources, to ensure “all the right notes” are included
  • It provides a commentary for musicians which is open and transparent
  • It delights the musician’s eye in its clear design and spacious layout, with “as good as possible” page turns.

Del Mar’s research revealed some interesting and entertaining “mishaps” in previous editions; for example, a hole in the paper being mistaken for a staccato marking or essential details being lost in the conservation and cleaning up of manuscripts. His interesting commentary was illuminated by musical demonstrations on the piano.

Jonathan Biss is a “thinking pianist” with an acute intellectual curiosity, as evidenced by his writings on Beethoven, and other composers, and his online course on the Sonatas. It was therefore a surprise to encounter a performer who appeared anything but a stuffy academic. Here was vivid expression, vitality and flamboyance; no standing back from the music as if in modest reverence but rather a deep dive into its every nook and cranny to winkle out and reveal details afresh.

The programme offered an overview of Beethoven’s creative life, with sonatas from all three periods of his compositional output (No. 1 in F , No. 10 in G, No. 18 in E-flat, No. 24 in F-sharp and No. 30 in E), and the first half in particular suggested an exuberant lust for life on the part of the composer, the performer reflecting this with sparkly, febrile runs and dizzying tempi. A tiny memory lapse in the first sonata was handled with bravura (and gave hope to aspirational amateurs, a reminder that this pianist is also human!). The final sonata in the triptych, nicknamed ‘The Hunt’, was a rollicking romp, its barely-reined-in energy given only a brief respite in the elegant Menuetto. In the finale, horses and hounds were fully unleashed and galloped around the keyboard in a vigorous, earthy tarantella. Edge-of-the-seat playing for audience, Biss electrified his performance with the sense that this music could run out of control at any moment (except that it wasn’t going to because this pianist clearly understands the paradox “through discipline comes freedom”) lending a special frisson to the performance. I turned to my companion at the end of the first half and found he was equally open-jawed at what we had just experienced.

There’s something seductive about this process of really going to your limit with this music

– Jonathan Biss

And here’s the thing: live music, done this way, truly is an experience. Not a polite recreation of what’s exactly on the page, a solemn ceremony of reverence, of fidelity and and “authenticity” (whatever the f*ck that actually means!) and honouring the composer’s “intentions”, but a thrillingly personal, witty, eccentric, captivating and unpredictable account of music which this pianist clearly adores. It’s not to everyone’s taste and it’s the kind of playing that will probably irritate the keepers of the sacred flame, but I loved it because it made me feel energised, fully alive.

The second half further confirmed this (and any performer who causes me to spontaneously cry during the Op 109 is clearly “doin’ it right”). A sensitive, but never saccharine Op 78, dedicated to Therese, and then the transcendence that is the Op 109, No false sentiment here – from the lyrical opening movement through the rambunctious middle movement, and finally the gorgeous, seductive theme and variations which open and close with a prayer, this was beautiful, thoughtful and vivid playing.

Companion and I retired to a noisy pub down the road from the Wigmore for post-concert conversation and more wine, neither of us truly able to put into words what we had just experienced. My only comment then was that this is music which can “take anything a performer throws at it”. And therein, for me at least, lies its greatness.

Really, Music is above all other things a language, and since no one used that language more daringly than Beethoven the more of it you speak, the more of it you feel, the more you will find in his Music.
– Jonathan Biss


Jonathan Biss’ Beethoven cycle continues at Wigmore Hall on 20 April (with a talk by Biss on 19 April). Further details.

My concert companion writes: Biss at Wigmore

Meet the Artist interview with Jonathan Biss

Hot on the heels of the opening of Picasso On Paper, a major new exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, came pianist Roman Rabinovich’s personal hommage to this artist, the place of his birth and his creative life, in a refreshingly original, colourful and very personal programme of music by Zipoli, Debussy, Satie, Granados, Gershwin and Stravinsky, together with a work by the pianist himself.

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Portrait of Igor Stravinsky, 1920 (Picasso Museum, Paris)

Debussy said that he “loved pictures almost as much as music” and the same may be said of Roman Rabinovich, who is also an artist. Unsurprisingly, many of the pieces in this programme had strong visual narratives (Debussy’s atmospheric Estampes and Granados’ dramatic and engrossing Goyescas, for example). Connections to Picasso’s native country came through Spanish composers (Zipoli and Granados) and also music (‘La soirée dans Grenade’ from Estampes), but there were other, more tangible connections too: Picasso and Granados were contemporaries and both frequented Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats), a bar in Barcelona; and Picasso encountered both Satie and Stravinsky through Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (Picasso’s 1920 portrait of the composer hangs in the RA’s current show, and he designed the costumes and setting for Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, and also for Satie’s ballet Parade).

Rabinovich was clearly very at home in all of this repertoire, from the sombre elegance of Zipoli’s g minor suite to the folksy vibrancy of Petrushka, an exuberant finale to the programme, and it’s encouraging to find a pianist who is willing to tackle such wide range of styles and moods with just the right balance of technical facility and bravura. The works by Debussy and Granados were particularly arresting, sensitively sculpted and shaded: Pagodes had the subtle washes and softened hues of watercolour while Granados’ El amor y la muerte (Love and Death) was darkly-hued, passionate and dramatic. Rabinovich’s own piece, its twirling perpetuum mobile outer sections bookending two less frenetic episodes, had the quirky wit of Satie and the rhythmic bite of Gershwin. And what a pleasure it was to hear one of Satie’s curious, haunting Gnossiennes. played with nonchalant grace.

Two days before the UK exited the EU, the Orchestre National de Lille (ONL) performed a programme of European music at London’s Cadogan Hall. They were joined by Chinese-American prize-winning pianist Eric Lu for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, the piece with which Lu secured his first prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2018.

The foyer and concert hall reverberated with bi-lingual conversations; unsurprisingly, there were many French people in the audience. In 2020, the ONL is the only French symphony orchestra touring the UK, and its presence here is part of a wider cultural and economic delegation to foster ongoing links with the UK and the Hauts-de-France region, and to further strengthen Anglo-French relations post-Brexit.

The charismatic Alexandre Bloch conducted without the score for the works by Ravel and Debussy, perhaps a sign of how intuitive this music is for him. Opening with Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye, a perennial favourite and a gentle opener for this colourful programme, Bloch drew characterful watercolour washes of sound and textures from the orchestra, whose silky transparent strings, haunting woodwind and sparkling percussion elevated these children’s pieces to something far more subtle and sophisticated.

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Debussy’s La mer was illustrated in more vivid strokes and colour in an evocative and dramatic portrayal of the mercurial, capricious nature of the sea, from gently lapping waves on a summertime beach to a swelling, storm-tossed ocean. It’s a cliché to say that French musicians truly understand French music, but here one felt a profound appreciation by orchestra and conductor of Debussy’s kaleidoscopic, atmospheric soundworld – those shimmering agitated strings, bright brass and luminous woodwind which brought the music to life in myriad detail and brooding intensity, culminating in a thrilling climax.

Unusually, the concerto opened the second half. This was perhaps for practical reasons, given the amount of rearranging of the stage which was required. Beethoven began sketching his Fourth Piano Concerto in 1804, and unlike many other pieces from his middle period which have become associated with heroic struggle and his personal demons, this work is imbued with serenity and joy, though not without poignancy: this was the last of the composer’s five concertos which he was able to perform himself, due to his increasingly debilitating deafness.

I have been wanting to hear Eric Lu live since enjoying his Leeds competition performance, and I missed his Wigmore Hall solo debut last December due to illness. There are two things which immediately strike you about this young (he’s only just 22) pianist: his modest stage presence and elegant, poetic sound, most obviously demonstrated in his pianissimo touch and Mozartian clarity, especially in the upper register of the piano. There was an intimacy too, in his interactions with the orchestra, and when not playing he turned towards them and conductor, awaiting his next cue.

His quiet presence brought a very palpable tranquility to the second movement, the piano’s tender, hymn-like entries contrasting with the bold, pestering strings. In the finale there was a quiet strength and bravura from Lu in gleaming passages and crisply articulated rhythms, the orchestra matching him with energy and élan.

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Unfortunately, I had to leave after the Beethoven, and only heard Lu’s encore (Chopin’s Prelude in B-flat) via the live link the foyer, before dashing for my train. I also missed the final piece in the programme, Ravel’s La Valse, which I don’t doubt was played with the requisite passion and sensuality by the ONL.


Photos ©Ugo Ponte/ONL

JS Bach – Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV.1004 arr. Busoni for piano
Busoni – Berceuse élégiaque (Elegy No.7), Op.42
Chopin – Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.35 (Marche funèbre)
Stephen Hough – Sonata No.4 (Vida breve)
Liszt – Funérailles from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173; Mephisto Waltz No.4 (unfinished); Mephisto Waltz No.1

Stephen Hough, piano

Tuesday 19 November 2019, Tuner Sims, University of Southampton


My first visit to Turner Sims concert hall at the University of Southampton, and a treat of an evening in the company of British pianist Stephen Hough playing music by Bach arr. Busoni, Busoni, Chopin and Liszt.

This was a typical Hough programme, thoughtfully conceived and superbly presented, deadly serious, for the theme of the concert was death – pieces inspired by or identified with death, including Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 with its famous Marche Funèbre, and Liszt’s Funerailles, written in the same month as Chopin died and at the time of the violent Hungarian revolution of 1849.

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Superlatives quickly become redudant when describing a pianist of Hough’s calibre, whose wide-ranging intellectual acuity always informs his programmes and his playing; therefore this is not a review, rather some reflections on what I thought was a most absorbing programme, especially the first half. In addition to the thematic asssociations between the pieces, there were musical connections too: the dark rumbling bass octaves in the Bach/Busoni Chaconne were reiterated in Chopin’s Marche funèbre – a plangent left hand accompaniment which, in the reprise of the famous theme dominated, with a dark tolling grandeur. And this figure was later heard again in the opening of Liszt’s Funerailles. Likewise, the haunting, unsettling soundworld of Busoni’s Berceuse (more a mourning song than a lullaby) was reflected in the finale of the Chopin Sonata, a curious, hushed fleeting stream of consciousness, and then in the wayward uncertain harmonic language of Liszt’s ‘Bagatelle without tonality’.

The Bach/Busoni Chaconne was a magnificent, emphatic opener for this concert, and Hough gave it a multi-layered, orchestral monumentalism. The Berceuse was a remarkably contrasting work, interior, intimate, mysterious and disquieting, and by segueing straight into the Chopin Sonata, Hough infused this work with a similarly discomforting atmosphere. With agitated tempi the Sonata moved forward with an anxious intensity but Hough lingered over the more lyrical Nocturne-like moments in the opening movement and the Scherzo. Like the Chaconne, the funeral march was magisterial rather than simply funereal and the tender, dreamy middle section lent an other-worldliness to the music’s atmosphere before the tolling bass and mournful theme returned.

Hough’s own piano sonata No. 4 ‘Vida Breve’ opened the second half of the concert, an abstract work constructed of five tiny motivic cells (including a quotation from the French chanson En Avril à Paris, made famous by Charles Trenet) lasting a mere 10 minutes, a comment on the transient, fleeting nature of life, its passions and turmoil. The concert closed with three pieces by Liszt – Funerailles, whose meaning is obvious, and two Mephisto Waltzes, devilish in their whirling virtuosity and frenetic, tumbling notes.


Stephen Hough plays the same programme at the Royal Festival Hall in March 2020. Details here

Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus – Olivier Messiaen

Steven Osborne, piano

6 November 2019, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

Messiaen builds cathedrals in sound. From a single candle gently flickering in a quiet side chapel to the glorious fan traceries of the main transept, the private place for solitary prayer and contemplation to the awe-inspiring painted spaces where the many gather to celebrate the glory of God, his music is monumental in its scale and breadth, a hypnotic Sainte-Trinité in sound.

And if Messiaen is the architect, then the pianist who performs his music is the guide, sometimes tenderly, sometimes violently, always colourfully leading us through the aisles and passageways, the arches and niches, past gilded icons and kaleidoscopic stained glass.

Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus is arguably the greatest piano work of the twentieth century, a work which more than holds its own against Bach’s Goldberg’s or Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas in its scale and breadth, its many challenges, technical, artistic and physical. It is a work of immense beauty, sensuous, powerful, sometimes brutal, thrilling, awestruck and awe-inspiring, ecstatic and intimate. It is also deeply personal and emotionally direct in its expression of the composer’s own profound Catholic faith; humble too in Messiaen’s ability to ground the music in a way that makes it accessible through his use of recurring themes and devices, in particular his beloved birdsong. These elements also give this tremendous work a cohesive, comprehensive architecture – and it is only by hearing the work in one sitting, as opposed to listening to individual movements from it, that one can fully appreciate Messiaen’s compositional skill and vision. Like a great symphony, the work moves inexorably through its movements towards a gripping finale.

I adore this music.

It begins with a whisper, barely a heartbeat, delicate chords, softly-spoken yet vividly hued (colour is so significant to the synaesthesic Messiaen) and repeated octaves, occasionally interrupted by luminous bell sounds; a profound, introspective contemplation. And then, some 130 minutes later, it ends in a blaze of glory, bells clanging across in the keyboard in ecstasy, “all the passion of our arms around the Invisible One….”

The extraordinary narrative arc and cumulative power of the Vingt Regards is akin to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, though its message is closer to one of his Passions. The expressive sweep of the work is vast, from the intimate, aching tenderness of Regarde de la Vierge (IV) to primal brutality of Par Lui tout a éte fait (VI) and the concentrated stillness of Je dors, mais mon coeur veille (XIV). As a consequence the work is rarely performed without an interval, but pianist Steven Osborne, who has been playing this incredible music for almost 20 years, believes it should be played as a whole, without a break, to create “a deeper sense of engagement with the work as a whole, for both myself and the listener.”

Steven Osborne, London 30 May 2013
Steven Osborne

The journey is remarkable, immense, exhilarating and overwhelming. Osborne knows this music so well that one feels at once totally at ease with him guiding us on this epic voyage yet also acutely alert, as he is, to every shift in harmony and tonal colour, every nuance and emotion. Speaking to him in the bar after the concert, I remarked that he seems very settled in the music (I first heard him play this work in 2013) and he commented that one just has to “go with it”. Such a modest description of such monumentality!

His virtuosity is restrained, yet his every gesture is freighted with meaning; he creates an extraordinary range of colours and tone – translucent filigree arabesques, shimmering, flickering trills, brilliant chirruping birdsong, plangent bass chords, rumbling, rolling Lisztian arpeggios….. And all despatched with an almost effortlesss sprezzatura, the music freshly wrought, as new sonorities, new meanings are revealed.

The performance was perfectly paced, the silences as poised and significant as the notes themselves, Osborne’s clear sense of continuity allowing each movement to be heard as a single statement in its own right, while also contributing to the cumulative, architectural effect of the whole. Here the rapture and ecstasy of Messiaen’s faith was captured in a profoundly concentrated performance that reverberated with passion, spirituality, awe and joy.

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