Guest review by Jennifer Mckerras 

One of the great joys of lunchtime recitals is having the opportunity to see young performers at the beginning of their professional careers. And two such were given a prime performance opportunity at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 24 October. Chanae Curtis (soprano) and Ella O’Neill (piano) garnered a large and appreciative audience for their recital, including a half-term crowd of families with children of all ages.

Curtis and O’Neill began their programme with Beethoven’s Ah! Perfido, Op.65. They continued with Three Poems of Fiona MacLeod by C.T. Griffes, and concluded with a selection of lieder by Strauss.

Chanae Curtis has a truly superb voice: velvety caramel in tone. She also has a tremendous range of colour and force, which this programme fully exploited. The very first item (Beethoven) is a long and complicated piece for both singer and accompanist, and requires several mood changes. Curtis and O’Neill guided the audience through all the twists and turns of the aria, and received justifiably rapturous applause at its end.

It was, however, in the American repertoire that Curtis really shone. She seemed to relax and connect with the audience in a way that had not been as present in the Beethoven. The Griffes songs are perhaps a little less well known by British audiences, and really deserve to be known better. Curtis’ handling of the texts was deft and well-nuanced, though sometimes the very full acoustic of the church building caused the text to be lost.

Ella O’Neill is currently undertaking postgraduate studies at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama with Simon Lepper. In this recital she was a masterful accompanist, and I think has a tremendous future. She navigated the twists and turns of mood in the Beethoven with aplomb, and her handling of the Griffes and the Strauss lieder was delicate and assured. O’Neill has a great stage presence: calm and unfussed, she has developed the gift of allowing the music to speak for itself. This is a tremendous ability in a player at the beginning of her professional career! She is also adept in giving both soloist and audience total confidence in her playing; one feels that very little could shake her.

The Strauss lieder were delivered with great assurance from both performers, and were hugely enjoyed by the audience. The encore was a spiritual, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, in an arrangement by Margaret Bonds. Again, Curtis found a new level of connection with the audience and the text – she positively glowed as she sang. It is a pleasure to see a performer wholeheartedly inhabit the music in this way.

The reception for Curtis and O’Neill was overwhelmingly positive; even the half-term passers-by stayed captivated until the end. These performers are certainly a pair to watch for the future.

I Musicanti
 
Leon Bosch, conductor
Arensky – Tchaikovsky Variations
Tchaikovsky arr. Stephenson – Rococo Variations
Alexandra Harwood – Sinfonia Concertante ‘The Secret Ball’ (world premiere)
Shostakovich, arr Stasevich – Sinfonietta after the String Quartet No. 8

4th November 2017, St John’s Smith Square, London

 

On (almost) the eve of the centenary of Russia’s October Revolution, I Musicanti presented a programme which spanned the old and the new: music from Imperial, Tsarist Russia (Arensky and Tchaikovsky) to an elegy to post-Revolution, post-war Russia in Shostakovich’s searing String Quartet No. 8 (here arranged for string orchestra with timpani), and the world premiere of a new work written by a fifth great granddaughter of Catherine the Great, Alexandra Harwood.

Following on the success of their first series at St John’s Smith Square, I Musicanti’s latest series ‘Alexandra and the Russians’ showcases brand new works specially written for the ensemble by Alexandra Harwood alongside well-known pieces and lesser-known or neglected gems of repertoire. This is proving a very successful and satisfying “formula” for I Musicanti: the juxtaposition of old and new, familiar and lesser-known offers interesting comparisons and contrasts within programmes, and brings to the fore music which may otherwise have lain dormant and unheard (for example, Schubert’s Quartet in G D96 for flute, viola, cello and guitar, which was part of the May 2017 programme). The programmes are also just about right in terms of length, no more than 40 minutes maximum per half – an important consideration for those of us who have a longer train ride back to the leafy suburbs after a concert.

Perhaps the most significant facet of the success of the I Musicanti formula is the selection of musicians. The ensemble is flexible – sometimes a quartet, sometimes at septet, depending on the repertoire; on this occasion a small string orchestra, led by Fenella Humphreys. The musicians are hand-picked: as Leon Bosch, the driving force behind the ensemble, said to me after the first concert (which included Peter Donohoe on piano), “I can choose the best people to work with” – and this shows in the quality and commitment of performances and performers. This is not flashy, ego-driven playing, but really exceptional playing driven by common purpose and a shared love of the music.

The concert opened in Russia’s Imperial age with Arenksy’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, written as a tribute to the recently-deceased Tchaikovsky, and which begins, choral-like, with a motif which mimics the sound of male voices in a Russian Orthodox Choir, expressed in the dark sonorities of two cellos, violin and viola. A lyrical work with seven variations of differing tempi and moods, it was an affecting and genial start to the evening, elegantly presented by I Musicanti.

For Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, a work inspired by the composer’s love of Mozart, the ensemble was joined by South African cellist Peter Martens for a performance which combined understated virtuosity (the work contains some fiendish technical challenges for the cellist and few opportunities for the soloist to rest) with a delightful interplay between soloist and ensemble. This arrangement, by cellist and composer Allan Stephenson, restores the variations to their original order and assigns the original wind solos to the string principals (in this case Fenella Humphreys, violin, and Richard Harwood, cello, who both brought colour and verve to the music). Peter Martens’ tone was rich and colourful, balancing wit with seriousness to create a performance of great variety, character and warmth. This was the first performance of Allan Stephenson’s arrangement, the scoring for strings bringing a clarity to the music with no less texture or richness than the original.

After the interval, the world premiere of Alexandra Harwood’s Sinfonia Concertante: The Secret Ball, a work scored for string quintet surrounded by orchestra inspired by a story by Alekxander Afanas’ev (1826-71). A single movement takes the listener through a series of dances, opening with a grand, if slightly raunchy waltz followed by a polonaise, tango, polka, mazurka, tarantella, sarabande (using fragments of melodies from Corelli and Bach), minuet (with a fragment from Mozart), Bourree (Bach quoted again), Badinerie (Corelli), Galop and finally another waltz, the music fading away to nothing, as if the dancers are disappearing into the dawn. Alexandra is a noted composer of film music and the piece had, for me at least, a very visual quality with a clear narrative. In the lively, foot-tapping fragments of dance, one could easily picture the secret ball, dancers twirling on the dance-floor, while unspoken scenes and assignations perhaps took place in side rooms.

This work provided a striking contrast to the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 (in an arrangement for string orchestra and timpani by Abram Stasevich) which followed. Here was a work of great emotional power which takes Shostakovich’s motto theme DSCH as its starting point, the motto returning in various guises throughout. The timpani provide an underlying martial character to the work (said to be dedicated to “to the victims of fascism and the war”, but also perhaps dedicated to the composer himself who in July 1960 discovered he was suffering from a debilitating muscular weakness). This was a compelling, sombrely elegaic and tautly managed performance, and a fine close to what I feel was I Musicanti’s best concert so far in their residency at St John’s Smith Square. This concert also represented a debut of sorts for double bass player Leon Bosch as it was his first appearance in London on the conductor’s podium, a role he seems to relish.


Further I Musicanti dates at SJSS

Sunday 21 January 2018 at 3pm – music by Arensky, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere), and Tchaikovsky

Sunday 3 June 2018 at 3pm – music by Prokofiev, Smirnov, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere) and Glinka

Do go – I promise you won’t be disappointed.

 

Meet the Artist interview with Alexandra Harwood

Guest article by Shirley Smith Kirsten

Facebook was abuzz with reminders of George Li’s touchdown in the Bay Area’s glittering Davies concert hall, a venue that absorbs a splash of pastel beams from the neighboring flagship government building. Glass panels reflect back montages of color that provide a rush of excitement for ticket holders slipping into seats right under the bell.

FB “friends” and faithful George “followers” were page-alerted to a ‘meet and greet’ event in the lobby following the recital. It would be a shower of support for a pianist we’d seen and heard by livestream from exotic locations including Moscow and Verbier. Frames in progress had included George’s Silver Medal triumph at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, magnified on computer screens around the world!

***

The Back Story

From my humble perch in Berkeley, I’d set aside 75 conscientious minutes to get to Davies Hall. It was a conservative travel measure, given lax Sunday train schedules and my propensity to get mired in Civic Center traffic as a clueless pedestrian in foreign urban terrain. (San Francisco’s maze of complex street crossings and intersections, bundled in congestion, had always seriously confused me, impeding on-foot progress in any direction).

Yet, despite well-intended, precautionary travel efforts, I couldn’t have anticipated a vexing single platform BART crisis that launched a crescendo of complications right up to my shaky finish line arrival at Davies. There, at its entrance, my concert companion/adult piano student stood patiently, dispatching block-to-block text messages to keep me on track.

With good luck and concerted teamwork, we made it to our first tier balcony seats just as George advanced toward a shining model D Steinway grand.

It was a pure bliss erasure of prior travails:

Melted deceptive cadences rippled through a crystalline rendering of Haydn’s B minor Sonata (No. 30) as trills and ornaments immaculately decorated clear melodic lines in a liquid outpouring of phrases. The middle Minuet movement was charmingly played passing with grace to a culminating Presto in brisk, bravura tempo with unswerving attention to line, shape, and contour.

Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata in F minor, op. 57, followed with tonal variation and keen structural awareness. The performance was both gripping and directional, wrapped in ethereal tonal expression.

Li’s singular sound autograph permeates his performances amidst an array of varying nuances and articulations. He has what pianist, Uchida terms “charisma” and a singular tonal personality.

Meaning and musical context are core ingredients of Li’s artistry and his wide palette of colors are at his liquid disposal through deeply felt effusions of expression. (While Li is a natural, intuitional performer, his sensitive fusion of aesthetics and intellect is always on display, exposed, as well in media interviews.)

A Presto Classical set of queries elicited thoughtful responses.

http://www.prestoclassical.co.uk/interview/1893/George-Li-Live-at-the-Mariinsky

***

The Davies Hall recital, continued after Intermission with a rippling roll-out of works by Rachmaninoff and Liszt, all imbued with a permeating spirit of mature music-making that’s intrinsic to Li’s ongoing ripening process. And as a cap to a memorable evening of inspired artistry, George played his final encore – a pyro-technically charged Bizet/Carmen transcription that drove listeners to their feet in a chorus of BRAVOS!!!

(This snapshot was provided by a friend who had permission to publicly post it, thanks to Li’s generosity and that of his representatives)

In a culminating MEET and GREET event, post-recital, audience members had an opportunity to share IN PERSON enthusiasm and appreciation of George’s artistry, while purchasing the artist’s newly released CD.

For me, a tete a tete with George, provided an opportunity to thank him for his generosity as a teen when he delivered well-conceived responses to my reams of technically framed questions about practicing, technique, and repertoire.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/my-interview-with-george-li-a-seasoned-pianist-at-16/

Finally, here’s an encore of gratitude to George for his inspired love of music, and for his reach into our hearts with each memorable performance. Come back soon!


 

Shirley Smith Kirsten is an American pianist and teacher who blogs at arioso7.wordpress.com

Once again the impeccable musicianship, collective commitment and imaginative and varied programming of I Musicanti impressed with the first concert in their new series at St John’s Smith Square. Entitled ‘Alexandra and the Russians’, each recital in this 4-concert series features a new work by composer Alexandra Harwood, who can trace her Russian heritage back to Catherine the Great.

Bookended by Shostakovich’s taut and impassioned Piano Quintet Op 57 and Glinka’s good-natured and lyrical Sextet in E flat, Alexandra Harwood’s ‘Fiddler in Hell’ was a rollicking, foot-tapping romp and a great platform for violinist Fenella Humphreys’ colourful virtuosity and affinity with new music. Meanwhile, Schnittke’s mysterious and unsettling Hymnus II demonstrated the supreme technical control and musical understanding of Leon Bosch (double bass) and Richard Harwood (‘cello).

I Musicanti’s creative approach proves that it’s possible to present new music in accessible programmes which combine familiar works with lesser-known pieces. Future concerts in the series include music by Tchaikovsky, Arensky, Prokofiev, and Smirnov performed by some of the finest musicians active in the U.K. today.

Highly recommended ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

IMusicanti.co.uk

Robert Schumann died in a lunatic asylum on 29th July 1856. On 29th July 2017, at Prom 20, British pianist Stephen Hough gave a performance of a work suffused with melancholy and darkness, the composer Johannes Brahms’ response to the tragedy of Schumann’s mental illness.

According to Brahms’ friend and colleague Joseph Joachim, who conducted the première of the First Piano Concerto in Hanover in 1856, the work reflects Brahms’ emotions on hearing Schumann, his artistic patron and musical father figure, had attempted suicide in the Rhine. The concerto opens with a ferociously portentous drum roll and darkly-hued, angst-ridden orchestral tutti, and the entire first movement charts a terrain of pain and instability, in which orchestra and piano seem at odds, engaged in a battle of drama and rhetoric. Given that this is the work of a young composer “without his beard” (Stephen Hough), the darkness and profundity of the First Concerto is shocking, its message visceral and emotionally charged. It flames with intensity and rhetoric.

Read the full review here

Dutilleux – 3 Preludes
Messiaen – La Fauvette Passerinette
Beethoven – Sonata no. 31 in A flat op. 110

Alexander Soares, piano

Monday 17th July 2017, Wigmore Hall

The Monday Platform at the Wigmore Hall showcases talented young artists and on this occasion pianist Alexander Soares, winner of the Gold Medal in the 2015 Royal Overseas League Annual Music Competition, performed music by two masters of French twentieth-century music together with Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata.

Alexander’s performance was preceded by some rather pedestrian Haydn performed by a prize-winning string quartet, and the contrast between this and Dutilleux’s Three Preludes could not have been more striking. Coming after the light classicism of Haydn’s String Quartet No. 40, the first of the three preludes, D’ombre et de silence (Of Shadows and Silence) emerged from the piano, freighted with mystery and suspense, stasis and foreboding. The second, Sur un meme accord, presented a varied and colourful landscape of sonorities, while the third, Le jeu de contraires, glittered and pranced across the keyboard. Alexander’s command of the instrument was impressive in these works, combining subtly nuanced dynamics, sensitive use of the pedal, precise articulation and a refined understanding of the sonic possibilities of the piano to create moments of wonderful, striking resonance. The Messiaen which followed, La Fauvette passerinette (a work discovered and reconstructed by pianist Peter Hill) was equally colourful and atmospheric, with vibrant bird song in the treble offset by plangent bass responses. Even in the loudest dynamic range, Alexander maintained a wonderfully lucid, singing tone.

After the interval, Alexander played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat, op 110, a work which, like the other two sonatas in the final triptych, seems to come from another place. Alexander gave the first movement the graceful expansiveness of a fantasy, while mainting a tempo which kept the music moving forward. The second movement was suitably rambunctious, serving as a perfect foil to the meditative Adagio which emerged, recitative-like, with a captivating intensity, before the fugue rang out. As in the previous works, Alexander’s command of the instrument, sense of pacing, and ability to create a rich palette of timbres and musical colour lent a powerful emotional impact to the work. Compared to Igor Levit’s interpretation, which I heard a few weeks ago, this version was more intimate and introspective but ultimately joyful and life-affirming, and one of the best and most compelling performances of my favourite piano sonata I have heard in a long time.

www.alexander-soares.com