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

murray-perahia

Guest review by Magdalena Marszalek

Programme:

J.S. Bach – French Suite in E, BWV 817

Schubert – Impromptus, D 935

Mozart – Rondo in a, KV 511

Beethoven – Sonata no. 32 in c, op. 111

 

Murray Perahia, piano

Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

On June 18 Amsterdam was hit by a heat wave that brought everyone out into the parks, to enjoy the summery day, the sun shining in a perfect, cloudless sky. For me, it was a prelude to an evening concert in the Concertgebouw, which concluded the 2016/2017 Meesterpianisten (Master pianist) season. And what a cherry on the top that was! Maestro Murray Perahia presented a wonderful program consisting of Bach’s Sixth French Suite in E major, followed by Impromptus by Schubert (op. posth. 142) and Mozart’s Rondo in a minor K. 511, the evening closing with Beethoven’s last Sonata in c minor, op. 111.

The artist briskly descended the famous Concertgebouw steps to warm applause but, completely focused on the piano, immediately started with the music. From the very first notes I could not stop wondering how such a mature musician could play with such freshness, youthfulness and curiosity. “Jeunesse” was the word that immediately came to mind, while listening to Perahia cruising gently through the movements of the suite. The  clue that this was in fact not a 20-year-old piano enthusiast genuinely having much fun and pleasure at the keyboard was his deep understanding and connection with the instrument. This is a very intimate relationship, one that can only be built over many years….. It was proven that evening three more times, because the friendship that Murray Perahia developed with the piano allowed him a marvellous command of sound and colour, his touch adjusting to suit each piece’s mood and period, light and shade.

His Bach was clear, but not crystalline. Instead of bright crystals falling from the keyboard, I could hear gleaming pearls that fitted perfectly with the sublime elegance of the Bach’s writing. A thundering ovation allowed the artist catch a breath and he came back with the Impromptus by Schubert. The party continued: of course, the joy in the playing was toned down, giving space for other, deeper emotions. The first Impromptu in f minor was so unbelievably cantabile, I am almost certain that no one can make the piano sings in the way Murray Perahia does. The second he played majestically, with much grace, showcasing the full dynamic range of the Steinway grand, from the most sublime, yet somehow bold and confident pianissimos to powerful, full-bodied, but not ostentatious fortissimos. In the following Impromptu, an Andante and Variations, the artist hadthe opportunity to let his boyish nature come forward again. It was incredible how this carefree child-like spirit was released in the music from the fingers of a pianist, who has not only incomparable experience, but also incredibly deep-rooted musical knowledge. One might suspect that too much wisdom could exert weight on the performance, but this was not the case. This 70-year-old Maestro knows how to take care of his inner child and regularly releases it to influence his music. And for sure, he still has it in his fingers, which he demonstrated in impeccably performed fourth Impromptu in f minor.

After the interval, we heard Mozart’s Rondo in a minor. It was the least interesting piece of the evening; however, I let myself sink deeply into the poetic melodic flow, as a preparation for the Beethoven’s final Sonata. I still had in mind the transcendental rendition of Grigory Sokolov, from just over a month ago, so I was curious to hear how Perahia’s version would differ. And indeed, it differed a lot! It was not as pensive and intimate as Sokolov’s, but also not as dramatic as other pianists’ renditions. There was so much light and brightness in Perahia’s playing, which put a unique perspective on this rather dark piece. The mood of the first part of the Sonata varied significantly from all the previous pieces in the programme: the joyful boyishness was gone, and we could see and hear a more serious pianist – serious, but without heaviness. I really appreciated his gestures when he struck the accentuated chords at the beginning of the movement. He flung his arms down violently and with what would look like cheap trick for many showmen in this case evoked an almost a vision of the sound that was attached to his fingers and flung out to the hall, to resonate for a moment before dying. Perahia played the dark and tumultuous movement without a grain of aggression. The recurring motif A♭-C-G was executed clearly, boldly, but not overly dramatic and without overpowering the rest of music, which in my opinion made it ring even stronger. In the second movement, the artist brought back some of the youthful charm, however, this time he did not let it dominate the music. The dark and serious character of the piece was maintained. I loved how he gradually changed the tone of the piano, growing darker and darker, and approching the end, revealing more and more passion. The steadily flourishing expressiveness was evident with the growing force of the pedal. With the trills in high registers, I noticed a beautiful acoustic effect of the concert hall – in addition to the sound produced by the strings one could hear a shy echo of the hammers, which sounded a little like raindrops falling on the roof, enriching the overall experience.

I was grateful to everyone in the audience to allow the last sound to fill the hall and gracefully die before the noisy, very long standing ovation begun. We were not blessed with any encore – but would there be a better way to close such an emotional evening and, in fact, the whole successful Meesterpianisten season?