Hot on the heels of the release of their new disc of works by Bartók, Debussy and Stravinsky for two pianos, French pianists François-Fréderic Guy and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet returned to London’s Wigmore Hall to present a programme of music featuring these composers. Three 20th century orchestral scores written within just four years of one another – Bartok’s Two Pictures, Debussy’s Jeux and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – were brought to life in a concert replete in colour, rhythmic vitality, sensuality and split-second precision.
I first heard Guy and Bavouzet perform Jeux and The Rite of Spring in 2012 in a concert which brought fire, daring and vertiginous virtuosity to a weekday lunchtime at the Wigmore. To hear the same pianists in the same repertoire three years later was revelatory, for it seems as if the music has matured, like a good wine. This second performance was slicker, yet full of even greater spontaneity and vibrancy.
The London concert scene is alive with pianists and piano-talk at the moment. Hard on the heels of Daniel Barenboim’s acclaimed survey of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas, performed on a brand new bespoke piano with his name emblazoned across on the fall board, comes Murray Perahia, who like Barenboim is afforded the status of a demi-god, though more for purely musical reasons.
I’ve always admired Perahia. My parents took me to hear him in concert when he was a young man and I was a little girl. His discs of Chopin, Bach and Schubert are my go-to recordings for their musical insight, pianistic prowess and lack of ego. Perahia has worked with some of the finest musicians of the 20th century – Vladimir Horowitz, Pablo Casals, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Clifford Curzon – yet he wears his accolades lightly and one has the sense, when hearing him live or on disc, that he always puts the music first. He is the very model of a modest virtuoso.
The splendidly intimate and elegant 1901 Arts Club played host to Steinberg Duo on Friday evening in a concert of music by John Ireland and Edward Elgar. Steinberg Duo, which comprises husband and wife Nicholas Burns and Louisa Stonehill, are regular performers at the 1901 Arts Club and curate a series of concerts there.
The music of John Ireland is, perhaps unfairly, rarely performed. The majority of his output was piano miniatures and songs. He studied with Charles Villiers Standford at the Royal College of Music (who also taught Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells and Butterworth, amongst many others) and by the end of the First World War had emerged as a celebrated composer following the overnight success of his second Violin Sonata, of which more later.
The Steinberg Duo have been praised for their “warm musicality” and virtuosity and this was more than evident throughout their programme which opened with Ireland’s first violin sonata in which the influence of the French impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel was evident in its adventurous harmonic palette. The work is no gentile Edwardian drawing room piece and it was played with requisite muscularity and poise by Louisa on violin, with a nimble and sympathetic accompaniment by Nick on piano.
Ireland did in fact meet Edward Elgar and described the few hours in Elgar’s company as “the finest lesson I ever had”. To celebrate this meeting, Steinberg Duo performed a group of miniatures which represented the kind of salon music which was popular at the end of the nineteenth century and entirely appropriate for the small music salon at the 1901. These short but charming works were a pleasant and contrasting interlude between the sonatas by Ireland.
The second part of the concert was occupied by John Ireland’s second Violin Sonata, the work which made him famous. Since the composer was unfit for military service during the First World War, he was able to continue composing. The Violin Sonata No. 2 was premiered on 6 March 1917 by Albert Sammons and William Murdoch, who performed in uniform, and was an immediate success, so much so that the published Winthrop Rogers was on the composer’s doorstep before breakfast the following day. The first edition sold out before it was put on sale, and the work secured Ireland’s success and reputation.
By 1917, the British populace had developed a weary stoicism about the progress of the War. The work perfectly captured the mood of the period by avoiding sentimentality. Instead, it is imbued with pathos in its arresting themes, striking chromatic twists and turns and harmonic and rhythmic motifs redolent of Debussy’s Violin Sonata or Ravel’s Piano Trio. The middle movement is one of great poignancy with a simple song, on the violin, at its heart. Its expressive melancholy suggests a musical anthem for doomed youth, but also a requiem for a way of life destroyed by the War.
Speaking of his own music, Ireland said “Whatever I have to say is said in the music, and if this does not speak for itself, then I have failed”. This powerful and emotional work was given a passionate and involving account by Steinberg Duo who allowed the music to speak for itself.
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