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)

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

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

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

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.

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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