Category Archives: Concert Review

Seong Jin Cho at Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

“A fresh take on Mozart” – Guest review by Magdalena Marszalek in Amsterdam

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11 June 2017

Mozart – Sonata in F, KV 332

Chopin – Four Ballades

Debussy – Images (Première série), L. 110

Debussy – Images (Deuxième série), L. 111

 

South-Korean rising star and Chopin competition gold medallist Seong Jin Cho made his solo debut in the famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 11th June 2017. The concert was a part of the legendary 30-year series ‘Meesterpianisten’, organized by Marco Riaskoff. His made his debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Great Hall in 2015, almost straight from the stage of the 17th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Not very long after that, in January 2016, he returned to Amsterdam with almost a ‘pop-up’ recital in the Recital Hall and I was really lucky to grab the last seat. He presented himself proudly as winner of the most prestigious piano competition in the world and gave the audience a flavor of what he served to the esteemed jury in Warsaw a couple of months back: a Nocturne, the Sonata in B flat op. 35 ‘Marche Funebre’ and finally the Preludes op. 28, which in my opinion guaranteed him the gold medal already in the third stage.

This time, still at such young age (23), he arrived at the Concertgebouw to rightfully take the stage in the Great Hall and claim his spot among the other master pianists. There was a slight last-minute change of programme, which finally consisted of Mozart’s Sonata in F major K. 332, followed by the both books of Debussy’s ‘Images’. After the break we heard Chopin’s Four Ballades (which also appear on Cho’s latest CD for Deutsche Grammophon, along with the First Piano Concerto).

The opening piece sounded to me like a warm up, a way to test the feeling and acoustic of the hall now filled with the audience. Cho’s interpretation had everything that you would expect from a fresh take on Mozart: clarity, brightness, energy, vigour. I really appreciated that he emphasized a few polyphonic, fugue-like moments, which then later smartly contrasted with romantic fragments. The Adagio was played in an almost meditative manner and I was captivated by the way Cho produced the sound, focusing so much on exerting the right touch to yield the highest quality results. The final movement was the place to discretely show off his phenomenal technique and great control of dynamics of the instrument.

I feel that by bringing ‘Images’ by Debussy to the stage the young pianist made a statement, that he clearly doesn’t want to be labeled as a ‘Chopinist’ (Chopin-specialist – this term actually exists in Polish). Six pieces that are the essence of impressionism were performed pensively, with great confidence and the highest care to produce quality of sound. This wise choice of repertoire presented him as a mature, multi-dimensional artist. It was clear that he spent a lot of time experimenting and searching for his own identity in each of the pieces. Yet, the strongest feeling radiating from the instrument was freshness: fresh to the point that one could forget that it is still classical music – so jazzy and free, the music just flew from beneath Cho’s fingers. He showed the strongest command of the instrument; the precision with which each sound, tone and colour was executed was phenomenal. I felt that by playing Images he could fully express what he is going through, that this is what occupies his mind. His performance at this point was truly stunning, however, it felt that he is not yet done with the search for the key to these pieces and he may still work on them and experiment more. He is already very convincing in his interpretation, but youthful hunger and curiosity may lead to, hopefully, something unexpected on a new recording, perhaps? He was awarded a well-deserved standing ovation before leaving the stage for a break (the Concertgebouw audience does not do it very often).

And although the interpretation of Debussy was something new and captivating, I was most looking forward to Chopin’s Ballades. Sadly, these turned out not to be the pinnacle of the performance. Usually I am very sensitive to Chopin’s music (maybe because we are both Polish people living abroad) and often I shed a tear or two during public performances, but this time I was left just feeling puzzled. In my opinion, Cho set off too fast with the first Ballade and he could not calm himself till the end of the piece. Everything was in its place – the changing moods, the dynamics – but I cannot shrug off the feeling that it was all rushed and even nervous. The second Ballade started softly as it should, and I hoped that he had fought off the nerves after coming back from the break, but the more he got into the piece, the more chaotic it sounded. He lost clarity and brilliance in the high registers and right hand; the heavy chords in the left hand overpowered the piece. Things were back under control for the last two Ballades. Nevertheless, I was rather disappointed with the second part of the concert. However, a warm and sincere standing ovation for the debutant invited him to perform two short pieces for encores, one of them being Debussy’s ever-popular ‘Claire de lune’.

To sum up, it was a very good debut by Seong-Jin Cho, but I got the impression that the young artist felt the pressure of performing at such as prestigious venue and maybe a little overwhelmed, which showed especially in the openings of his pieces. Surprisingly, he felt most at ease when performing the more difficult to interpret Debussy, as if this was so close to him in that particular moment. On the contrary, coming back to Chopin, after the competition and all that buzz, seemed to be something that he would rather leave behind, or put aside for the time being. Seong-Jin Cho is such a young man, it is only natural that he is still searching for who he is or who he wants to become as an artist. The wonderful news is that along that search he leaves behind him beautiful, already very mature piano music for us to enjoy.

Shock and Awe: Igor Levit at Wigmore Hall

Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall, 13 June 2017

Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Opp 109, 110 and 111

I first heard Igor Levit in this sonata triptych back in 2013. It seemed a bold programme choice for a young man, yet Levit’s assertion that this music was “written to be played” makes perfect sense and is a view I’m sure Beethoven would concur with. Then I felt there was room for development and maturity, important attributes for any young artist in the spring of their professional career. Now I hear an artist who has lived with – and in – the music and has crystallised his own view about it.

He crouches over the piano like an animal coiled for attack, yet the sound in those opening bars of the Sonata in E major, Op.109, was so delicate, so lyrically ethereal, it felt as if the music was emerging from some mystical outer firmament, entirely appropriate for these sonatas which find Beethoven in profoundly philosophical mood. It is music which speaks of shared values and what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being; it “puts us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe” (Paul Lewis). The Prestissimo second movement, urgent and anxious in its tempo and atmosphere emphasised by some ominous bass figures, contained Levit’s trademark “shock and awe” stamping fortes and fortissimos, only to find him and the music back in meditative mood for the theme and variations, which reprised the serenity of the opening, the theme spare and prayer-like with more of that wonderfully delicate shading at the quietest end of the dynamic spectrum that he does so well.

Read my full review here

 

 

 

(photo ©Igor Levit)

Quality chamber music in the heart of Kingston

Launched in May with a fine performance by noted fortepianist and academic John Irving, the first tranche of Kingston Chamber Concerts (KCC) closed last night with a recital by the Armorel Piano Trio, who performed works by Beethoven, Schumann and Dvorak.

The KCC formula is quite simple: quality chamber music performed by young professional artists and local musicians in the convivial setting of the East End Café at All Saints’ Church, right in the heart of Kingston-upon-Thames and its historic market place. Tables are set out salon style and the bar serves good wine at a fraction of the cost of a glass of house white at the Wigmore Hall. You can take your drinks to your table and share a bottle with friends, as I did last night.

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The Armorel Piano Trio comprises Kathy Chow (piano), Lucia Veintimilla (violin) and Sebastian Kolin (cello). Their programme, opening with Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio, Op 70/1 and closing with Dvorak’s ‘Dumky’ Trio, Op 90, B 166, with Schumann’s Op 80/2 the middle of the triptych, demonstrated the development of the piano trio genre, from the strictly classical three-movement structure of Beethoven, though already showing the forward-pull of Beethoven’s vision in its eerily dramatic middle movement which connected it, in this concert, to Schumann’s sweeping romanticism, to the freedom of Dvorak’s six-movement ‘Dumky’ which feels more like a suite than a trio in its organisation highly  contrasting moods and textures.

This was a very committed performance by all three musicians, and extra credit must go to the young players who had had their final recitals for their post-graduate studies at conservatoire the same day: they must have been shattered but they hardly betrayed this, and their playing really came alive in the Dvorak which was replete with folk idioms and fine solos from cello and violin, with vivid colouration from the piano, in particular in the third and final movements. The Schumann was genial, laced with a bitter-sweet poignancy (the work was written in 1847, the year of the deaths of the Schumanns’ son Emil and Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn), and Armorel really caught the fleeting mercurial moods of this music.

The Beethoven, meanwhile, provided drama of a different kind, with much boisterous dialogue between violin and cello in the first and final movements, and colourful interplay between the piano and the other instruments. The slow movement was freighted with Gothic gloom, with its fragmented themes, uncertain harmonies and eerie tremolos in the bass of the piano. This was a movement of great tension, rich in quasi-orchestral textures.

This was a fine end to the first three concerts in KCC’s six-concert first season and the sizeable audience prove the series is already off to a very good start. The series resumes on Saturday 16 September with Ceruleo, an early music ensemble, whose concert entitled ‘Love and Betryal in the music of Handel and Barbara Strozzi’ includes performances on harpsichord, theorbo and Viola de Gamba.

For further information about Kingston Chamber Concerts/join their mailing list, please contact kingstonchamberconcerts@gmail.com, or telephone 020 8549 1960

Grigory Sokolov – giant of the piano

Guest review by Magdalena Marszalek

 Grigory Sokolov – Meesterpianisten series recital, The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam 7th May 2017

Programme

  • Mozart – Sonata in C, KV 545
  • Mozart – Fantasie in c, KV 475
  • Mozart – Sonata in c, KV 457
  • Beethoven – Sonata no.. 27 in e, op. 90
  • Beethoven – Sonata n0. 32 in c, op. 111
  • Schubert – Moment Musical in C, D 780, No. 1 (encore)
  • Chopin – Nocturne in B (from ‘Deux Nocturnes’, op. 32) (encore)
  • Chopin – Nocturne in As (uit ‘Deux Nocturnes’, op. 32) (encore)
  • Rameau – 4e Concert : No. 2 L’Indiscrète (from ‘Pièces de clavecin en concert’) (encore)
  • R. Schumann – Arabeske in C, op. 18 (encore)
  • Chopin – Prelude in c (from ’24 Preludes’, op. 28) (encore)

There is no need to introduce Grigory Sokolov to anyone interested in the piano world today. He is an implicit giant, who does not seek nor need advertising, unnecessary media attention, flash-bulbs and buzz. He is above all that, yet so powerful in his modesty. His performances do not contain obvious technical fireworks. If you like this kind of showing off, there are other names you should look to. His performance will affect you first from the inside, starting slowly, almost shyly – and then it will swallow you and possess you whole.

Sunday 7th May 2017 was Sokolov’s 19th recital in a row (!) in the famous Meesterpianisten series in Amsterdam, which this year celebrates its 30th annivcersary. He chose to present two piano sonatas by Mozart (C major K 545 and C minor K457 with the Fantasy K. 475) and two sonatas by Beethoven (E minor op. 90 and C minor op.111). The first sonata, known as the “easy one” (Sonata Facile), may be a surprising opening piece. Heard so (too) many times, performed by all manner of child prodigies, only when under the fingers of a mature pianist does it bloom to its fullest. Still, I would consider it as a warm up before the Fantasy, where Sokolov visited every dark corner there was and brought to light every nuance of this piece. Cruising between the different moods, emotions and styles of this work, he immersed the audience in his mystical world. His natural transition to the sonata invoked the feeling of some unspoken deep, dramatic questions. Yet, his interpretation was not overly dramatic, which left the listeners even more emotionally disturbed and intrigued. It made me realized how this classical piece, decorated with almost baroque fugue elements, shyly and unintentionally hints towards a new era. Nevertheless, the genius of Mozart transcended his own time, just as the genius of Sokolov eclipses other performances.

After the first standing ovation and a break, the pianist came back to present the two sonatas by Beethoven, op. 90 and op. 111. My overall impression of the tone and colour was that the Steinway concert piano sounded much better in this repertoire. Multi-dimensional, Beethoven’s voice sounded much broader and bloodier than the rather flat and crystalline Mozart. Sokolov played the sonata E minor in a more contemplative way than I knew it and throughout his performance I realized that slowing down the tempo, even a little bit, might lead to great discoveries. Again, this sonata – like the Sonata Facile which opened the concert – was more like a prelude for the op. 111. A beautiful second movement resembled a ray of sun before the serious C minor piece commenced. Sokolov played the first movement of op. 111 so meditatively that the audience grew a little uneasy, guilty about barging into such a deep and intimate conversation he was having with a piano. But it was so compelling you simply want to be a part of it… I was curious how Maestro Sokolov would interpret the “rag-time”/syncopated elements of this sonata and I really liked the elegant, understated way in which he handled these rhythms with a little swing in a more playful way.

One can only guess at the maestro’s intention in building such a programme, but for me it was a beautiful journey, using the definition of a classical sonata as its point of departure. Sokolov presented the evolution of the form beautifully, and he chose pieces where the composers, even though firmly grounded in the aesthetics of their respective times, were already emotionally climbing on their tiptoes to see and feel what the future could bring. As a performer, he cleverly highlighted these musical fast-forwards and truly let the music shine. And by doing this he actually could not confirm any more strongly the impact that his personality exerts on the music. He shows so much respect to the music that when he touches the keys he gives the impression that he has disappeared and the only thing that is left in the hall is a beautiful, omnipresent sound. And yet this is not true – because he is everywhere, in every soul who is privileged to sit in the room with him.

The Concertgebouw audience cherishes and almost worships Maestro Sokolov, so a great set of encores was obviously going to follow a thundering standing ovation. He started with Schubert’s Moment Musical no. 1 in C major, and then went on to play two Nocturnes op. 32 by Chopin. He played them last year in the Concertgebouw, and I was not the only one with tears in my eyes, especially after the first Nocturne. That was the most emotional moment of the evening and it unlocked a new, deeper level of emotions in many listeners. He then played L’Indiscrete by Jean-Philippe Rameau and Schumann’s Arabeske in C major op. 18, which I also remember from last year. Again, a lesson should be learned that it does not necessarily pay to show off with tempo, even with a relatively easy piece like this, because one can overlook small pearls and diamonds in this charming work. The final encore was the Prelude op. 28 no. 20 (“Funeral march”) and it is impossible to describe what he did with this short piece! Sokolov turned that prelude into a musical haiku, and through masterful use of dynamics he evoked the weight of death with just the faintest shade of hope. No one else is capable of doing that.

Magdalena Marszalek

Amsterdam 8th May 2017
Magdalena Marszalek is an amateur pianist. She taught herself how to play and read music when she was 5 and then graduated to a primary music school in Poland. She did not pursue a professional career in music and went on to become a scientist (PhD in chemistry), however, piano music has accompanied her and inspired her all along. Currently residing in Amsterdam, when not working on new types of solar cells, she spends many hours at the piano practising and playing for pleasure – mostly Chopin, because he was a Polish emigrant, too. Very often she hops on her bike and in 10 minutes she is in the Concertgebouw, enjoying stellar performances by the finest musicians in the world. Realizing how lucky she is, she wants to share her passion for piano music with everybody. 

Magdalena’s piano story on instagram: @princess_mags_piano

A glimpse into the soundworld of Haydn and Mozart

Kingston Chamber Concerts launch, Thursday 18th May 2017

John Irving, fortepiano

Haydn: Sonata in A flat, Hob.XVI:46
Bach: Prelude & Fugue in F sharp minor (48, Bk.2)
Mozart: Sonata in C, K.330
Haydn: Sonata in E flat, Hob.XVI:49
Bach: Contrapunctus 8 from The Art of Fugue
Mozart: Sonata in B flat, K.570

For one night only the audience at the inaugural recital of the new Kingston Chamber Concerts (KCC) series at All Saint’s Church, Kingston-upon-Thames, were offered a fascinating and beautifully presented glimpse into the soundworld of Vienna in the late eighteenth century with a recital on fortepiano by John Irving. The concert was a treat for all sorts of reasons, not least because Kingston is a mere 15 minute bus ride from where I live – a privilege to enjoy such splendid music so close to home.

KCC is the initiative of local resident Leslie Packer and the stated aim of the series is to provide a platform for young artists and local performers in a friendly and convivial setting – the East End Cafe at All Saint’s Church. The audience were seated around small tables, reminisicent of the way music was enjoyed prior to 1850 when the modern concert format as we know it today developed. “Good wine” is also part of the KCC experience and my friends and I enjoyed a glass of delicious Riesling on arrival (and a second glass in the interval!). This undoubtedly added to the pleasure of the evening.

John Irving is an internationally-recognised Mozart scholar and is Professor of Performance Practice at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire. His concert programme, Keyboard Music from the Age of Enlightenment, featured piano sonatas by Haydn and Mozart, together with a Prelude and Fugue and a excerpt from the Art of Fugue by J S Bach. He had brought his McNulty fortepiano into the church especially for the concert. This instrument is a copy of a fortepiano by Walter, and one which both Haydn and Mozart would have known and played. The sound of the fortepiano is at first a little disconcerting: it’s more “clangy” than a modern piano and its voice is less resonant, but in the opening sonata by Haydn (in A flat, Hob.XVI:46) wonderful colours and orchestral tones were immediately revealed, from deeply resonant bassoons and horns in the bass to trumpet fanfares in the treble. The lighter action of the instrument, compared to a modern piano, made for really sparkling passage work, while the slow movement spun elegant melodic lines. The entire performance was imbued with much joy and wit.

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John Irving

The playing was interspersed with interesting commentaries, which illuminated both music and instrument, and gave us a flavour of the musical life and times in Vienna in the late eighteenth century, including an amusing anecdote about one of Haydn’s pupils who asked for the cross-hands section in the Sonata in E flat Hob.XVI:49 to be made easier so that she could play it. John also explained the reason for including works by Bach in the programme: Mozart was familiar with Bach’s keyboard music and transcribed many of his fugues for string ensemble. Meanwhile, the Art of Fugue was not specifically composed for harpsichord and its intricate contrapuntal lines and voices suit ensemble playing. The Prelude & Fugue in f minor, from the second book of Bach’s 48, felt curiously modern compared to the Haydn, elegantly shaped, with an austere melancholy; while the excerpt from the Art of Fugue was sensitively voiced, building in grandeur as the myriad lines of counterpoint interwove to create unexpectedly piquant moments of dissonance.

The sonatas by Mozart (in C, K.330 and B flat, K.570) revealed more of the colourful treble of the fortepiano in their sprightly opening and closing movements, while the slow movements were replete with operatic arias and long-spun melodies. Here, John improvised in the repeated sections, a practice which was common in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

This was a really delightful concert, engaging, informative and very enjoyable, and I wish KCC success with the first season. For more information about the series, please contact kingstonchamberconcerts@gmail.com / 020 8549 1960

The Ecstasy…….and the ecstasy. Peter Donohoe’s Scriabin marathon at Milton Court

Is it Chopin? Or Liszt? Or maybe Brahms? To the ingenue listener, Scriabin’s first piano sonata suggests all of these composers – Chopin’s long-spun lyricism, Liszt’s sweeping romanticism, Brahms’ plangent, orchestral textures, or maybe even Rachmaninov on a fantasy-frolic. But as Alexander Scriabin’s great friend, Leonid Sabaneyev said “he is not like Chopin. He is like Scriabin“.

Scriabin inhabits a distinctive, personal soundworld which is hard to define. It is the music of excess, ecstasy, tumult and passion. It is excessive, overripe, decadent, heavily perfumed, languorous and frenzied, lacking in structure and sometimes downright bizarre. The music of extremes, it is “hyper everything”, and as such it defies description or categorization. Its language is complex, often atonal and frequently almost impenetrable. For some listeners, and artists too, it is this “over-the-top-ness” that is off-putting; for others, myself included, it is this sense of excess and rapture that is so compelling. His personal life and outlook mirrored the excesses of his music: he was dissolute, he could be outrageous, he had high-falutin’ ideas of his own self-worth, and he believed music should be intimately connected to all of human experience. Perhaps this explains the breathless sensuality, the roaring passion and mystic spirituality of his music. All of human life is here, in all its ecstasy.

Scriabin was also a synaesthete, as I am, and it was his synaesthesia which initially drew me to his music.

…..he wrote and spoke of the colours of his music, of the constantly changing shapes that chords and rhythms and melodies could summon up, almost like a spiritualist at a séance. His scores bristle with detailed and evocative markings designed to help the performers imagine what the listeners see and feel.

– Gerard McBurney

The ten piano sonatas chart the course of Scriabin’s musical development more faithfully than any of his other music. The last sonatas hint at where his music was heading and offer a captivating glimpse into his adventures in atonality, while the early ones demonstrate his forays into late-nineteenth-century romanticism, the music of his compatriot Rachmaninov.

In presenting Scriabin’s ten piano sonatas in a single concert, British pianist Peter Donohoe amply demonstrated the variety of Scriabin’s writing for the piano – its rich textures, trembling filigree gestures, mystic perfumed harmonies, and ferocious virtuosity (Scriabin was a fine pianist himself). From the first youthful sonata, written a year after Scriabin left the Moscow Conservatoire and at a time when he was raging against a self-inflicted injury to his right hand, to the incense-laden mysticism of the ninth, the infamous “Black Mass”, Peter Donohoe plunged into the programme with relish. Never mind that there were still nine sonatas to go, the first was played with pulsating power and energy.

The programme was not presented entirely chronologically, and the middle section of the concert featured sonatas six, seven and eight, played in a single sequence without applause (as requested by the performer). At this point, one simply submitted to the music, to be drenched in myriad sounds and textures. Here Scriabin’s kaleidoscopic tonal palette, filigree figurations, perfumed sonorites and complex rhythms were magically brought to life by a pianist who totally “gets” this music. Hauntingly-lit piquant harmonies, ethereal accompaniments, jazz idioms, Peter Donohoe brought muscularity and featherlight delicacy to this ecstatic music.

The music was interspersed with engaging readings by Gerard McBurney, which illuminated the music and the man. These were accompanied by projections behind the piano, mostly grainy photographs of the composer and his friends, or abstract images which were supposed to suggest a synaesthete’s response to the music. For this synaesthete, it was rather awkward – and I suspect it may have been for Scriabin too: for him key of F was associated with deep red, while for me it is mauve, yet we were treated to blue during the first sonata (in F minor).

I was disappointed not to be able to stay for the final segment of the concert, but I have Peter’s recording of the complete Scriabin Piano Sonatas to enable me to complete this magnificent journey.

Let there be Love (Songs)

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Love, in its infinite variety, was in the air at Hoxton Hall on Wednesday evening for a concert of newly-written love songs for solo piano, performed by British pianist William Howard. The event was the first of three marking the culmination of William’s Love Song Project, which began with the release of William’s album of romantic songs without words, Sixteen Love Songs, in June 2016. Having commissioned and performed music by living composers throughout his career, William wanted to explore the possibility of creating a contemporary version of his Sixteen Love Songs, modern songs without words on the theme of love which would connect to the composers featured on the Sixteen Love Songs disc. From an idea discussed while hill-walking with composer Piers Hellawell, the Love Song Project came to be and was met with great enthusiasm by the composers whom William initially approached.  Alongside the commissioned pieces by leading British composers including Robert Saxton, Judith Weir, Bernard Hughes, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Howard Skempton, William launched a composing competition which yielded 526 entries, of which we heard the first, second and third prize winners in the under 25 and over 25 categories.

The subject of love is, of course, the major preoccupation of pop songs and composers of the Romantic period, but has rather fallen out of favour amongst modern and contemporary composers whose focus seems to be more abstract or concerned with the big issues of the day such as climate change or political upheaval. In his introductory talk, William explained that this  “very indulgent” project had revealed a great variety of compositional languages, imagination, moods and character. Many of the works are very meaningful, or highly personal, are easy to relate to and travel far beyond the confines of the strictly defined genre of “classical music”. What the works share is their brevity, and “an overwhelming tenderness for the piano” (Piers Hellawell), and reveal the infinite lyricism and resonance of the piano.

Aside from the championing of contemporary composers, the project has produced a wonderful body of new repertoire for solo piano to suit all tastes.

The audience was invited to give feedback and select favourites from the programme of 12 pieces, but it would be hard to choose one stand-out piece from such a broad range of very fine music. The winning competition entries had clearly been selected with thought, the judges careful to avoid imposing their own stylistic agenda on the pieces, and these were interleaved with commissioned works to create a programme of great charm and variety. The works reflected the myriad facets of love – from tender pieces written for babies or children (‘Camille’ by Joby Talbot, ‘Daniel Josiah is Sleeping’ by Simon Mawhinney) or a partner (‘For Teresa’ by Robert Saxton, which quotes Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, another love song for piano, and is redolent of Schumann’s heartfelt outpourings to Clara in its melodic lines and rich textures). Other works focussed on more abstract aspects of love, or love other than the human kind (‘Arbophillia’ (love of trees) by Samuel Cho Lik Heng, third prize winner in the under 25 category). The programme ended with Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s ‘Love Song for Dusty’, which pays homage to both Dusty Springfield (“a temporary obsession of mine when I discovered that other types of music existed other than ‘Classical’“) in its song structures (verses, choruses, bridges) and pop-infused harmonies, and also to the nineteenth century composers of sweepingly romantic piano solos and songs without words such as Mendelssohn and Liszt. It had a wonderful warmth suffused with wit and humour. William’s sensitive, graceful playing brought to the fore the individual characters of each piece, not an easy task when one is moving between very short pieces of contrasting mood and style.

This was a really delightful evening, made more so by the number of friends and supporters in the audience who together created a very friendly and convivial atmosphere: it felt like a concert for friends and amongst friends – the best kind of music making – and pianists can look forward to the opportunity to explore some wonderful new repertoire.

The Love Song Project concerts continues at Leighton House Museum and Cheltenham International Music Festival in May and June, and include music by Judith Weir, Howard Skempton and Nico Muhly. Details here

Young talent blooms at St John’s Smith Square

PLG Young Artists Spring Series 2017, St John’s Smith Square, 24 April 2017

Joy Lisney, cello

Laefer Saxophone Quartet

Programme:

Gyorgy Ligeti – Solo Cello Sonata
Jan Vriend – Symphonic Dances for solo cello (world premiere)
Richard Rodney Bennett – Saxophone Quartet
Charlotte Harding – Sub to Street, to Scraping the Sky (world premiere)
Joy Lisney – ScordaturA for solo cello (world premiere)
George Crumb – Sonata for solo cello
Giles Swayne – Leapfrog for saxophone quartet (world premiere)
Mendelssohn – Capriccio Op. 81 No. 3 (for saxophone quartet)

The PLG Young Artists Series 2017 at SJSS has a special focus on young artists who are also composers, and the concerts include a number of world premieres by leading composers, as well as young artists performing their own works. A shame, then, that with so much young talent on display, this concert was so sparsely attended. We should be supporting young artists such as these – and composers too, young and old – for by doing so we future proof classical music for the next generation and beyond. Sadly, I suspect the modern and uber-contemporary repertoire, which featured in this engaging programme, was the deal-breaker for most potential audience members – it’s that recurrent “problem” with new music, the anxiety that it will be too esoteric, inaccessible, atonal, discordant, impenetrable….. In fact, this programme contained nothing to offend nor assail the ears, and much to delight and intrigue. There were melodies and lyricism aplenty in all the works performed, and the combination of performers – a solo cellist and a saxophone quartet – made for a varied and interesting evening of music which complemented and contrasted, and all of it was highly accessible, even to the novice listener.

I first heard Joy Lisney at SJSS in 2011. Back then, in her first year at Cambridge, she impressed with her musical maturity and poised stage presence in music by Lutolawski and Chopin. Six years on, she’s now working on her doctorate while sustaining a busy career, as a soloist, chamber musician, conductor of the newly-formed Seraphin Chamber Orchestra, and a composer. This multi-dimensional approach to music making is refreshingly enterprising, but also harks back to nineteenth-century composer-musicians like Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. And there’s something really special about hearing a composer perform their own music – the sense of ownership is very potent and this was certainly the case with Joy’s work. In fact, as Joy explained in her introduction to her piece ‘ScordaturA’, named after the technique of tuning the strings of the cello out of their usual sequence of perfect fifths, and receiving its world premiere at this concert, she found writing for her own instrument particularly difficult, and that spending time writing at the instrument (rather than at her desk) enabled her to find a distinct voice in the music rather than be too heavily influenced by the other repertoire she plays. Having said that, the work pays homage to the Sonatas for Solo Violoncello by Ligeti and Crumb which she also played – it opens with pizzicato figures and strummed strings, motifs which are found in the sonatas. The Scordatura tuning produced striking colours and timbres, while the bariolage string-crossing technique created some very haunting and ethereal sound effects. After a climactic con moto middle section the work subsided back into the harmonic figures of the opening, its ending enigmatic and uncertain. An intriguing and thoughtful work which sat very well with the other music she performed.

The other work for solo cello receiving its premiere at this concert was ‘Symphonic Dances’ by Jan Vriend, a composer with whom Joy has a long-standing creative relationship. This work is dedicated to her and is redolent of Bach’s suites for solo cello (indeed it references the Suite No. 1 in G) in both its motifs and organisation – a sequence of dances of different meters and distinct characters. The work was delightfully varied, virtuosic but never overblown, engaging, witty, and melodically colourful, with much harmonic, textural and rhythmic interest which the composer employs to drive the impression of “symphonic” writing for a single line instrument. The work gave full rein to Joy’s formidable technique while also demonstrating how such technique should always serve the music. This is clearly the type of music she relishes – she’s very alert to rapidly shifting moods, contrasting motifs, expansive writing and technical challenges – and her enjoyment was evident: this was playing suffused with style and energy.

Similarly, her approach to the sonatas by Ligeti and Crumb demonstrated an ease with this type of repertoire. The Ligeti was wonderfully voiced, with a clear sense of dialogue between melancholy phrases and questioning pizzicato chords, and it proved an impressive opener to the concert. Both the Ligeti and Crumb draw inspiration from folk melodies of their native countries, the innate lyricism and expression highlighted by the warm resonant tone of Joy’s instrument and her sensitive shaping of motifs and phrases.

In constrast to the rather more darkly-hued, melancholy works (with the exception of the Vriend) performed by Joy Lisney, Laefer Saxophone Quartet (their name comes from the Anglo-Saxon for “reed” and “sheet metal”) presented works more upbeat in character, performed with style and panache. The saxophone is more usually associated with jazz or big band music, but in these works by Richard Rodney Bennett, Charlotte Harding, Giles Swayne and Felix Mendelssohn (arr. Martin Trillaud), Laefer proved the instrument’s importance, and success, in classical repertoire with fine ensemble playing, crisp articulation, contrasting vibrant and warm tones, close interplay between performers, and a sense of wit and playfulness – most evident in Giles Swayne’s ‘Leapfrog’ (2017). In Charlotte Harding’s ‘Sub to Street, to Scraping the Sky’ the buzzing, bustling, honking of New York City is atmospherically evoked: from the baritone sax’s low rumblings to suggest the rattle and grind of the subway trains, to the soaring skyline, lyrically portrayed by the soprano sax.

This was an impressive opener for a week of concerts at SJSS by PLG Young Artists, with all performers revealing deep commitment to their music making in a wide-ranging and very imaginative programme. In fact, these young people are not the musicians of the future, poised on the threshold of their professional careers: they are the musicians of here and now, fully fledged and ready to make their mark on the world. Please go and hear them and support them.

PLG concerts continue at SJSS until 28th April

Joy Lisney performs her own new work and Vriend’s ‘Symphonic Dances’ in London and Tetbury – further details here

Breathtaking pianism: Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich at St John’s Smith

Brahms and Messiaen do not immediately strike one as natural concert programme companions: Brahms teems with polyphony and darkness while Messiaen is about light, timbre, vertical chords, vibrant colour – indeed Messiaen hated Brahms, declaring that “it’s always raining” in Brahms’ music.

But unlikely or daring juxtapositions can create interesting and unexpected contrasts and connections, as one work shines a new light on another, enriching both listener and performer’s experience – and this was certainly my take on this remarkable concert by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich at St John’s Smith Square which combined Brahms’ Sonata in F minor, Op 34b with Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen.

If there are connections to be made between the music that made up this large-scale programme it is that both works are mighty musical edifices, two great mountains which transcend mere notes on the page and which demonstrate each composer’s wish to remain in long moments of emotional distress, relaxation or ecstasy. Both works also display a high level of perfectionism in their structures and organisation, replete with many details, motifs and musical pathways which could easily become blurred in a lesser performance.

Read my full review here

 

(picture credit Neda Navaee)

 

I Musicanti at St John’s Smith Square

I Musicanti, an ensemble formed in 2013 by double bass player Leon Bosch (formerly principal double bass with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields Orchestra), launched their triptych of concerts at St John’s Smith Square with an afternoon recital featuring the world premiere of a new work by South African composer Matthijs van Dijk as the centrepiece. This arresting piece was bookended by Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat, K493 and Schubert’s evergreen Quintet in A D667, the ‘Trout’.

I Musicanti includes artists who are all distinguished performers, who play in and with the best orchestras in the world, as soloists and chamber musicians. Sunday’s line up featured pianist Peter Donohoe, cellist Richard Harwood, violinist Tamás András and violist Robert Smissen, with Leon Bosch on double bass.

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Leon Bosch (photo: Hyatt Studios)

St John’s Smith Square (SJSS) is now my favourite London venue, alongside Wigmore Hall, and while I and my concert companion were waiting for the recital to begin (there was a slight hiatus due to some mysteriously missing piano music, which was, luckily, found!) we perused the SJSS programme of forthcoming concerts and decided what we would like to hear next….. It really is a lovely venue, with a fine acoustic for chamber music, solo piano, choral and orchestral music, and its staff are friendly and helpful.

This elegant programme was guaranteed to dispel any lingering post-Christmas blues. The Mozart was elegantly-turned, warm and affectionate, while the Schubert rippled along as cheerfully as the eponymous fish, all holiday melodies and sunlit rhythms, with some charming interplay between the piano and the other instrumentalists. Peter Donohoe’s touch was bright and joyful, as befits the character of the music. Throughout the concert, there was a very palpable sense of all the musicians thoroughly enjoying both the music and the act of performing together, creating a lovely atmosphere in the venue. When I commented on this to Leon Bosch after the concert, he declared “I can choose who I work with” and he must be applauded for selecting musicians who display not only equal talent but also a shared sense of purpose and musical friendship.

The new work by Matthijs van Dijk, But All I Wanna Do Is Dance, was composed as a response to the extraordinary and unsettling events of 2016 which seem, in the composer’s own words, to have unleashed “a never-ending wave of anger, frustration, hate and bigotry in all shapes and sizes – all issues that need to be addressed, of course, and, once one is aware of them, unable to ignore”. The work is not intended as “a joyous declaration”, but rather a plea against the enormity of world events, an elegy to our inner child, and a wish to be allowed to forget what is going on, if only momentarily.

A haunting solo on the viola begins the work before it begins to open up with the addition of the piano and the rest of the ensemble. This meditative section is interrupted by febrile rhythms, suggesting lively dancing but always tempered with a sense of frustration and a yearning for the innocence of childhood, a time when one didn’t really know or understand what was happening in the world…..

I Musicanti returns to St John’s Smith Square on 5 March with an afternoon concert featuring another world premiere by South African composer Werner Bosch. Further details here