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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Cerne Abbas is a pretty village nestled in “Thomas Hardy country” north of Dorchester (Hardy’s Casterbridge). It’s famous for its “rude giant”, carved into the side of a hill above the village, whose origins are unknown, and for the last 29 years, the village has been host to an annual music festival, founded and organised by the Gaudier Ensemble.

The festival was established in Cerne Abbas to provide musicians with an attractive place to perform and an opportunity for them to come together to play the music they wanted to play to the highest artistic standards. The festival has also forged important links with the local community and has created stimulation and inspiration for schoolchildren and young musicians. A generous programme of concerts is combined with open rehearsals and masterclasses for promising young musicians, and leading students from the Royal Academy regularly join the Gaudier Ensemble to perform in some of the concerts. The church of St Mary’s is an excellent venue for the concerts, with its fine acoustic and picturesque location.

I knew about the Cerne Abbas Music Festival from the pianist Susan Tomes (whom I’ve interviewed and subsequently met) who plays with the Gaudier Ensemble, but missed the festival last year due to my house move. This year, I was determined to attend; Cerne Abbas is a 45-minute drive from Portland through some of the most charming countryside, and my father’s visit was a good opportunity to enjoy a Sunday lunchtime recital of one our favourite works – Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet.

The opening piece, a quartet by François Devienne for strings and bassoon, was unknown to us but with its idioms and character so redolent of Haydn and Mozart, it felt familiar, and the performance was witty and colourful – what I call “friendly music” which puts everyone in a good mood and receptive for the rest of the concert.

Schubert’s Trout was infused with a warm intimacy, the piano ringing out like a carillon, high-spirited and lively but never dominating, the strings carefree and lyrical. Relaxed and genial, it felt irresistibly spontaneous, with its transparent textures and infectious, memorable melodies. The perfect music for a warm, sunny day in Dorset.

This was a most enjoyable and committed performance, the audience attentive and enthusiastic, and proof once again that fine music making exits and thrives outside of the capital. Next year Cerne Abbas Music Festival celebrates its 30th anniversary: the dates are already in my diary.

Cerne Abbas Music Festival

Meet the Artist interview with Susan Tomes

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It could have been any night at the Wigmore Hall, London’s ‘sacred shoebox’: the grand piano stretched across the stage like a gleaming limousine, the anticipatory hum of conversation in the foyer, people chatting in the bar…

Except it wasn’t any other night.

For me, it was my first experience of jazz at the Wigmore. It felt right, because for a jazz ingénue like me, it was easy to walk into a venue I know well for music which I didn’t know. It felt comfortable. The atmosphere was different, however, and the audience younger.

It all began in a familiar way – the lights dimmed, the pianist crossed the stage to the piano, his body language quiet and composed. Then that first piece, hushed, tender, elegantly voiced. Not “jazz” as I understood the term, but something which transcended the boundaries of genre. I heard Debussy, Scriabin, Ravel, a dash of Messiaen, a hint of Radiohead in the colourful, piquant harmonies. The piano sound was gorgeous, restrained, perfectly nuanced.

After the second piece, jazz pianist Jason Moran turned to the audience.

“People like me don’t play in halls like this” he said.

There was a burst of laughter from the audience, but this was no joke. Go into the green room at the Wigmore, where performers, Moran included, wait before going on stage, and you’re surrounded by photographs of others who have performed in this hallowed hall: there’s not a single person of colour amongst them.

The enormity, the responsibility, the flow of history and heritage weighs heavily on every performer playing at the Wigmore. And Moran clearly felt it too – only more so. Added to this, the night before he’d played at the Beethovenhaus in Bonn, with a portrait of the Old Radical staring right back at him as he sat at the piano. Imagine how that felt? He dedicated his Wigmore concert to “everyone who has walked across this stage”.

History was felt too in the stride number Carolina Shout, a hommage to Moran’s jazz forebears James P Johnson and Teddy Wilson. It was the only piece in the programme which felt like “real” jazz to me. Contrast it with Magnet, an earthy, dark, rumbling piece largely confined to the lowest registers of the piano which revealed sonorities and resonances rarely-heard – the echo of a voice shouting into a cave, drums and strings, bassoons, even the thrum of helicopter rotorblades….it reminded me of Somei Satoh’s Incarnation II, another piece which capitalises on the piano’s resonance.

Another work had the pulsing, looping hypnotic repetitions of Steve Reich. In all the playing, and his introductions to the pieces, Moran revealed himself to be a compelling communicator, creating connections through words and sound which drew us in, made us listen attentively – and made us think.

But it was in the more soulful, expressive and introspective numbers that I found most to admire – never before have I heard so many colours, nuances, subtleties of timbres from the Wigmore Steinway as in Moran’s hands. His first encore was achingly tender, so poignant, so intimate; the second more upbeat, a piece with the rhythmic drive to rouse us from our seats to offer a standing ovation.

“It’s all just music!” said my jazz pianist friend Rick Simpson when we were having a drink after the concert. And he’s right – it is all just music, regardless of genre or period. And on Friday night it was just music – and music making – of the highest order.

 

Ronan Magill, piano

Piano Sonata No. 3 in C, Op 2, No. 3

Two Bagatelles, Op 126 : G major – Andante con moto & E flat major. – Andante cantabile e grazioso

Piano Sonata No. 29, Op 106 ‘Hammerklavier’

Friday 26 April, Tincleton Gallery, Dorset


The tiny village of Tincleton is nestled in the pretty Dorset countryside near Moreton, where T E Lawrence (of Arabia) is buried. A converted Victorian school house is home to Tincleton Gallery which exhibits local artists and sculptors and also hosts concerts of jazz and classical music in an elegant vaulted gallery space which was once the schoolroom.

Organiser and host Joan Burdett-Coutts is friendly and welcoming, and one can take a glass of wine into the concert room, underlining the convivial ambiance of these events. The audience is very loyal, some people travelling from far outside the county to attend, and many come to all the concerts in the series.

The first time I met pianist Ronan Magill he played Liszt and Schubert, and some of his own compositions from his Titanic suite, on the Bechstein in my living room – a pre-performance ahead of a “proper” concert later that week. It’s a real treat to be so close to the music, and the music maker, and the audience at Tincleton Gallery enjoyed the same intimacy and immediacy of sound.

Ronan’s programme offered a snapshot of the extremes of Beethoven’s compositional life, from an early sonata, composed in 1795, to two Bagatelles from the Op 126, written after the final three piano sonatas and inhabiting the same otherwordliness as these works, and the monumental Hammerklavier sonata, one of the highest peaks of the pianist’s repertoire.

The early sonata is full of Hadynesque wit in its outer movements, deftly portrayed by Ronan, but the slow movement looks forward to the emotional depth and range of the Hammerklavier and the late sonatas, and was played with an elegance and sensitivity which found even greater expression in the slow movement of the Hammerklavier.

The first and last Bagatelles from the Op 126 contain all the brilliance, rhetoric and mercurial character of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and set the tone nicely for the Hammerklavier after the interval (during which more wine, nibbles and conversation).

The Hammerklavier is justly regarded by pianists as one of the high Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, and marks a significant point in Beethoven’s compositional life – a musical manifesto, which reaffirms the composer’s presence in the world, after the turbulent, difficult years of the Heilingenstadt Testament (a letter from October 1802 in which Beethoven expressed his despair over his increasing deafness). The sonata is a pianistic tour de force, from its infamous and perilously daring grand opening leap of an octave and a half  to its finger-twisting final fugue. As Beethoven himself stated, ‘it will give pianists something to do’. The cumulative effect of this work is overwhelming: an expression of huge power, richness and logic, and Ronan rose to the challenge of the majestic breadth of this great sonata

The Adagio sostentuto is the emotional heart of this expansive work, and here time was suspended in music which has an almost Schubertian harmonic trajectory and introspection, combined with the improvisatory qualities of a Chopin Nocturne, all played with a Mozartian clarity and broad dynamic palette. And out of this other-worldly place came a restless physicality in the gigantic explosion of the final fugue and its deliberate dissonances and crunchy harmonies.

What can one play after such a mountain has been scaled? Schubert’s sixth Moment Musical in consoling A flat major offered a gentle salve and shared the introspection of Beethoven in his more reflective moments.

Concerts at Tincleton Gallery

Guest review by Doug Thomas

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Gavin Bryars

In 1971, the British composer Gavin Bryars looped the recording of an unknown homeless man singing what was thought to be the religious hymn “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” over a dense minimalistic orchestral arrangement. The result is a mesmerising musical experience; first limited to twenty-five minutes on LP, then sixty minutes on cassette and finally seventy-four minutes with the CD version. Unfortunately, it appears that the old man never heard Bryars’ composition – and the composer himself later came to conclusion that the hymn had actually been improvised by the unknown man. Last Friday, 12th April 2019, a handful of lucky people gathered in the Tanks at London’s Tate Modern to experience for the very first time for a full twelve-hour live performance of the piece.

The event, scheduled at eight in the evening and running until the early morning, was organised so that the audience could stay for the entire duration of the concert, but with constant open doors to allow people to come and go throughout the night. Contrary to Max Richter’s eight hour lullaby “Sleep”, no beds had been arranged; actually no seating had been arranged at all. The audience spontaneously sat, and later lay down, in a semi-circle in front of the orchestras, while some people stood up and moved around, as one would do in a museum room. The orchestras were the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Southbank Sinfonia and the Gavin Bryars Ensemble (including my arranging teacher at university, Audrey Riley). On the side of the orchestras, Street Wise Opera, a choir of people with experience of homelessness, and in the middle of all that, on contrabass and later on the conductor’s seat, Gavin Bryars himself.

The piece started quite spontaneously with no announcement or introduction. And then something happened. To the words of the old man’s voice and the sweetness of the instruments, the entire audience remained silent and immovably mesmerised. Stanza after stanza, the instruments introduced themselves, then the choir started singing. There was the beauty of the music, the honesty of the musicians and the singers, the admiration and attentiveness of the audience. When I checked the time, I realised that what felt like minutes had actually been hours. Throughout the night, members of the orchestra took turns in performing while part of the audience remained, as night owls, until the early morning.

Everything about this experience was right. The venue, which broke with the austere standards of classical concerts venues, and allowed everyone to come, and go. The spontaneous audience: musicians, curious wanderers or simple art and music lovers. The performers: amateurs and professionals gathered around a communal sense of honesty and authenticity. And of course, the music. What had always seemed to me like a beautiful two-dimensional musical painting became a sonic sculptural wrapping, and a unique musical experience. How lucky I feel to have been a little piece of history of minimalistic music.


Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London.

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