For this concert, I exchanged the deep red plush seats of London’s Wigmore Hall for my first visit to Plush Festival, held in the tiny village of Plush, deep in Thomas Hardy country in Dorset. Here in 1995, far from the madding crowd, Adrian Brendel established the festival in a spirit of collaboration and shared music-making. A deconsecrated church, which sits in the arcadian grounds of Plush Manor (bought by the Brendel family in the early 1990s as a bucolic retreat) is the venue for the concerts. Its generous acoustic and small size make it perfect for intimate chamber music and solo recitals; in addition, visitors may sit in on open rehearsals.

I’d known about the village of Plush (the pub, the Brace of Pheasants does a good Sunday lunch) and the Brendel connection for years, but this was my first visit to the Festival – part of my determination to seek out quality classical music in Dorset, my new home since I moved from London in May.

The drive to Plush suggests one is entering a special place. Leaving Dorchester (Hardy’s “Casterbridge”), I left the A-road and passed through the villages of Piddletrenthide and Piddlehinton (“Longpuddle”). Then a sharp right turn and up a steep hill and there was a sign to Plush Festival, guiding the way. The village is chocolate-box-pretty, with the pub at its heart. The signs to the festival pointed beyond the centre of the village and a winding, tree-lined lane takes you into the grounds of Plush Manor. A helpful gentleman guided me to park my car in an adjacent field and asked if I’d been to Plush before.

Outside the church, small groups of people lolled in foldout camping chairs or lounged on picnics rugs. Some were even enjoying a picnic ahead of the concert. A small bar offered wine, prosecco and soft drinks, and there was a bunting-draped stall next door selling CDs. The murmur of conversation was accompanied by birdsong. A friend texted (before my mobile reception disappeared) to say he was at Glyndebourne for the afternoon, and I thought there was a touch of the Glyndebourne experience, in microcosm, at Plush – though minus the dinner jackets: people were dressed casually. After all, this was a lunchtime on a sunny Saturday in August…..

10567-b5caaf2a50ce50da7f81d22244175770The soloist for this concert was Filippo Gorini, a prize-winning young Italian pianist. His programme was unexpected for a weekend lunchtime recital – Schumann’s Geistervariationen (“Ghost” Variations) and Beethoven’s mighty Hammerklavier Sonata – but Kat Brendel, Festival Director, told me afterwards that this was “the programme he wanted to play”. It proved a bold and successful choice.

Schumann composed his Ghost Variations in 1854, shortly before he was committed to a mental asylum. It was his final piece, dedicated to his beloved Clara, and the work is freighted with melancholy and tenderness. Filippo Gorini caught the tragic intensity and intimate poignancy of the work. Understated, elegant and restrained, one felt Gorini fully appreciated that Schumann is a composer who wears his heart on his sleeve; the final variation ended on a whisper, with Gorini allowing the sound to fade into the stillness of the church.

Beethoven, by contrast, is at his most declamatory in the Hammerklavier Sonata, which opens with a daring leap across the keyboard and a rollicking fanfare motif. This was masterfully shaped by Gorini who brought energy and vivid colour to the music. At its heart is the Adagio, a huge slow movement of infinite serenity and profundity which in Gorini’s hands felt like a stand-alone piece of music. Time was suspended, and while a butterfly fluttered, agitato, around the church, nothing could break Gorini’s concentration – nor the audience’s (who were as committed as any Wigmore audience). This movement, played with an intense concentration which echoed Gorini’s sensitive approach to the Schumann, has an almost Schubertian harmonic trajectory and introspection, with the improvisatory qualities of a Chopin Nocturne. Out of this other-worldly space came a finale of restless physicality.

Chatting afterwards, I mentioned to one audience member that I felt Gorini had the ability to make one forget a pianist was actually present during the performance. It’s a rare talent, and his lack of ego or unnecessary gesture undoubtedly contributed to this impressive performance.

If you think great music is only to be found in the metropolis, think again: Sir Andras Schiff returns to Plush Festival tomorrow for a sold out concert, and past seasons have enjoyed performances by Paul Lewis and Till Fellner.


This years Plush Festival continues from 14-16 September. Full details here

 

 

 

Header image: courtesy of Plush Manor

 

 

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Scriabin – Piano Sonata No.2 in G sharp minor Op.19
RavelMiroirs
Mozart – Piano Sonata in C K279
Schubert – Piano Sonata in A D959

Monday 18th June 2018, Wigmore Hall. Peter Donohoe, piano

I can think of few better ways to celebrate a significant birthday than a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall: a beautiful venue with a warm atmosphere, an audience of friends and supporters, and a generous programme of music reflecting the breadth and range of Peter Donohoe’s talents and musical tastes, and celebrating a long and acclaimed international career.

Anyone who attended Peter’s Scriabin sonatas marathon at Milton Court last year (the complete piano sonatas performed in three concerts in a single day) will know that Peter has a real affinity for the diverse and mercurial qualities of Scriabin’s writing, so this early piano sonata proved a good opener, reconfirming Peter’s ability to create multi-hued, highly expressive music and capture Scriabin’s fleeting, often volatile moods. And its rather fantasy-like qualities set the scene well for Ravel’s Miroirs, which for me was the real tour de force of this concert. Here was piano playing of the highest order – exquisite layers of sound, moments of aching beauty, and a clear vision for each movement to shape their individual characters and narratives. Oiseaux Tristes was heat-soaked and languid, its ennui washed away by the sparkling, rolling waves of Une barque sur l’océan – for me the highlights of this set. In both the Scriabin and Ravel, Peter displayed a wonderfully natural insouciance, presumably born of a long association with this music, which brought spontaneity to the performance.

The second half was occupied with the classical sonata form, in the hands of two masters – Mozart and Schubert. While the Mozart was elegant and intimate, as if played at home amongst friends, Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata was pacy and expansive. Here Schubert experimented with the possibilities of the classical sonata form, creating, with its companions the D958 and D960, a triptych of sonatas of “heavenly length” and wide-ranging musical ideas. The first movement of the D959 had grandeur and scale, emphasised by the exposition repeat, which Peter observed, and tempered by moments of introspection and wistfulness, though never melancholy. Its infamous slow movement was a reflective meditation shot through with a barely-controlled frenzy, rather than a funereal dirge with hysteria (the preferred approach of some pianists who shall remain nameless and who insist on reading the marking Andantino as Adagio….). Schubert’s shifts of gear, bittersweet harmonies and moments of wistfulness were neatly captured throughout. The finale was warm and consoling, nostalgic and ultimately hopeful. One can only wonder what else Schubert might have done with the sonata form had he lived longer…..

For an encore, Peter played Mozart’s D minor fantasy, beloved of pianists everywhere and a neat contrast to the quasi-fantasy of the Scriabin which opened this magnanimous concert.

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.

Read my full review here

03HOUGH1_SPAN-jumbo-v2What 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.

 

 

evgenykissin_wide-9aa53798ae987906571102878d8a12936652197c-s900-c85You 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.


(photo: FBroede/IMG Artists)

Guest review by Mary Grace Nguyen

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.

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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.

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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.

Twitter: @MaryGNguyen