Daniel Barenboim, musical polymath, is in town for a four-concert Schubert Project residency in which he will traverse all 11 of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas. Prior to the first concert, he unveiled a brand new piano – one with his name on it. The Barenboim piano was conceived and developed in a collaboration between Barenboim and Belgian piano maker Chris Maene, with the cooperation of Steinway. What makes this piano different from the modern concert grand is that it is straight strung, and Barenboim used a Liszt piano as the inspiration for his eponymous instrument. It is said to offer a greater variety of colour, transparency and clarity across its range. Audiences at Barenboim’s Schubert recitals will have the opportunity to hear for themselves this new piano in action.

Unsurprisingly, it was a full house at the Royal Festival Hall and there was a distinct buzz of anticipation and reverence ahead of the start of the concert. Sitting in the rear stalls didn’t really offer myself and my concert companions a chance to examine the piano in detail. The piano remained firmly closed, lid down, until a few moments before Barenboim took to the stage, and was closed up again during the interval.

The jury is still out on whether the Barenboim piano was noticeably different to a modern Steinway, and any clarity and crispness of articulation, or nuanced dynamics are surely the result of the pianist’s technique, not the piano: one would expect an artist of Barenboim’s calibre to make even the most beat-up church hall piano sound lovely.

The theme of the first of Barenboim’s Schubert concerts was the key of A, as he presented three sonatas from different periods in the composer’s life. The D537, in A minor, was composed by Schubert when he was 20 and is the earliest surviving completed piano sonata, though it was not published until 1852 as the Op. post. 164. It begins with a dotted motif followed by filigree semiquaver broken chords. It’s emotionally charged and already demonstrates Schubert’s skill in unexpected harmonic shifts which colour the music. The middle movement, in warm E major, is genial and nostalgic, with a theme that would be heard later in the concert (Schubert “exported” it as the Rondo theme of the final movement of the D959). Yet, typically of Schubert, the mood shifts during the trio, a chilly march in A minor. The finale has a Beethovenian cast, with a dash of Haydn’s wit, yet already full of Schubert’s trademark unexpected harmonic shifts and emotional volte-faces.

I think many of us were trying to hear whether the piano really sounded that different instead of concentrating on the music, but the opening Sonata was presented with energy, though not always entirely convincingly, and keen sense of Schubert’s tonal palette, especially in the final movement. The middle movement, whose theme was reprised later in the D959, began genially enough, but the middle section had an ominous tread, for which the bass notes of the piano were suitably rich and dark.

The first A major Sonata of the evening is known as “the little A major” and was the most genial of the three sonatas presented in the concert.  Barenboim created a sense of intimacy in the first movement, but again one had the sense he wasn’t entirely convinced by it himself. It continued into the ethereal slow movement, whose pianissimos were, at times, barely a whisper. The finale was lyrical and good-natured, the opening theme played with a songful elegance, though I felt he pushed the tempo a little too much for my taste so that some of the lyricism was lost.

After the interval was “my’ Sonata, the penultimate of Schubert’s piano sonatas, the D959 in A major, which I have (perhaps recklessly) set myself the task of learning. I was extremely curious to hear Barenboim’s take on this big work, not least whether he could carry the narrative of the first movement right through to the closing sentence of the finale. My difficulty with hearing other people’s versions of this sonata is that they often conflict with my own, which can make me the most pedantic of listeners. I spend a lot of time with this Sonata. To say I eat, drink and breathe it might be excessive, but I often find myself waking in the night and playing it through it my head. The opening statement, a chorale-like sentence, lacked real nobility and drive and the propulsion towards the suspension at the end of the passage was lost in some curious pulling about of the tempo. There were one or two rocky moments as some of the triplet figures were lost – and this issue reappeared in the finale, where perhaps Barenboim was tiring (this is a big work – lasting around 40 minutes, even without the exposition repeat in the first movement), and overall I felt the movement lacked power and drive.

The slow movement, about much has been said, written and surmised, a melancholy folksong with a storm at its centre, lacked cohesion and there were some serious memory issues towards the end. The movement seemed relentless rather than revelatory. However, the scherzo was bright and crisp, with some sensitive highlighting of the melodic line in the trio section. The finale seemed rushed, the triplets often losing clarity, but the sections in the coda where the music stalls, as if to take a long breath, to reflect on what has gone before, were perfectly paced and the closing statement, a recapitulation of the opening sentence from the first movement, was emphatic. The standing ovation which followed was as much for Barenboim the man, the demigod, as for the performance and the new piano.

Li-Chun Su is a Taiwanese pianist based in Berlin and last week she was in the UK for a series of concerts, supported by Kumi Smith-Gordon, creator of the imaginative Soirées at Breinton. I was fortunate to hear Li-Chun at the OSO arts centre in Barnes, and with an audience of just eight people arranged around the piano, the experience was intimate and intense.

J S Bach’s Goldberg Variations are considered to be amongst the finest music for the keyboard. Originating from a simple idea – a beautiful aria over a ground (repeating) bass – the thirty variations present the history of Baroque music in microcosm: lavish displays of modern, fashionable expressive elements of the high Baroque, with just a hint of Classical idealism, together with magnificent structure and formal beauty. There are dances and canons, riddles and doodles, lightning flashes and filigree arabesques. Not until Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was a similar work conceived on such a scale.  Li-Chun’s performance was vibrant, colourful and absorbing, showing a deep understanding of the structure, voicing and contrasting and varied material contained within the movements. The opening Aria was played with a spare elegance while the livelier variations were bright, poised and nimble. The slower variations were almost romantic with warm legato and sensitive dynamic shading. Li-Chun revealed herself to be a sympathetic and intuitive Bach player, and it was clear from her performance that she feels great affection for this music.

During the interval the audience were invited to vote for the pieces we wanted to hear in the second half. The choices included Schumann’s ‘Carnaval’, Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ and a handful of Chopin’s Nocturnes. In the event, Li-Chun played a triptych of works by Handel, including the variations known as The Harmonious Blacksmith, Mendelssohn’s ‘Variations Serieuses’, which tied in nicely with the Goldbergs, and Debussy’s ‘Claire de Lune’ and ‘Feux d’artifice’. Here she proved the breadth of her technique and musicality, a sensitive yet muscular pianist who is equally at home in Baroque repertoire as the late nineteenth-century. In ‘Claire de Lune’, for example, she revealed some interesting bass highlights, which are not always made apparent by pianists who prefer to focus on the melody in the treble. Her playing had a lovely lucidity which brought a special clarity to Debussy’s writing, something that it not easy to do.

Definitely ‘one to watch’, I very much look forward to hearing Li-Chun again when she next visits London.

www.lichunsu.com

Li-Chun Su kindly completed my Meet the Artist interview:

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music? 

The piano chose me. We had a piano at home. I love the piano and playing beautiful music so much. It happened without making a clear decision.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My teacher Gabor Paska, living in Berlin and supportive friends.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Four Liszt Concertos in one concert and Bach’s well-Tempered-Clavier Book I in one concert.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

The live concert recording of 2009 at the musical instruments museum in Berlin. I played Bach’s Well-Tempered-Clavier Book I for the first time without an intermission and almost achieved perfection in day.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Difficult to say. Time by time it changes.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

I have usually instinct to sniff out what I want and need to play.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

A lot of places. It is like making friends. I feel comfortable with some people, and some less.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

One nocturne by Chopin. I always play it after a good concert evening as an encore.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I remember well almost every concert

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

A love for the music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

A calm and confident feeling.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My passion for life.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

The process of making a thing come true.

What is your present state of mind? 

Secret…..

A native of Taiwan, Li-Chun Su received her musical training in Taipei and Berlin. She graduated from the Berlin University of Arts with the Konzertexsamen, the highest degree in graduate courses. She has studied with Tsia-Hsiuai Tsai, Laszlo Simon, Martin Hughes, Gabor Paska and Mitzi Meyerson.

Li-Chun Su took first prize in the Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Competition and in the Artur Schnabel Competition in 2007. In 2008 she was awarded the first prize in the Porto International Piano Competition in Portugal. She has had numerous invitations to perform across Asia, Europe and South America.

John Ireland (1879-1962)

 

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.

Steinberg Duo

1901 Arts Club

Brighton-based pianist Helen Burford presented a varied and creative programme of music in a Sunday afternoon concert as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival. Praised for her innovative and joyful approach to programming, the concert included three world premieres by contemporary British composers Georgina Bowden, Sadie Harrison and Barry Mills interpersed with works by Bill Evans, J S Bach, Claude Debussy and Chick Corea.

The concert opened with what I have come to regard as Helen’s “signature piece”, the haunting and hypnotic Incarnation II by Japanese composer Somei Satoh. Twelve extraordinary minutes of an absorbing soundscape, the work relies on primarily on the prolongation of vibrations (repeated notes) and is an exercise in control on the part of the performer who is given free will in the work as to how long it should last. Through these devices, the work conjures up the most extraordinary sonorities – horns, cellos, bells, drums. This was followed by the first premiere of the afternoon, ‘Hymn for Piano’ by Georgian Bowden, which also explored the sonorities of the piano in contemplative chords and gentle movements around the keyboard, and was played with a simple sensitivity by Helen.

Helen is noted for unusual programme juxtapositions and at first placing a prelude and fugue by J S Bach with Bill Evans’s jazz classic ‘Peace Piece’ may seem curious. But in the fact it proved fascinating, for the arabesques in Bach’s writing were neatly reflected in filigree improvisatory motifs in Peace Piece, all set over an ostinato bass line redolent of Satie’s Gymnopedies. This also set the scene for Sadie Harrison’s Four Jazz Portraits, written for Helen and inspired by jazz greats Bill Evans, Thelonius Monk, Fats Waller and Albert Ammons. The four miniatures all contained witty references to these jazz greats, and were delivered with deftness and humour by Helen.

The third part of the programme stepped away from jazz and into music inspired by the landscape. Debussy’s Bruyeres from the second book of Preludes evokes heather (or a town in northern France). This was paired with Barry Mill’s ‘Evocations’ whose titles – Falmer Pond with Ducks, Geese and Gulls, The Rowan Tree and Clouds forming, Clouds dissolving (Homage to Debussy) – suggest similar settings to Debussy’s work. The works by Mills recalled Debussy in their colourful harmonies and trimbres, and swirling movements.

The concert closed with a triptych by Chick Corea – ‘Where Have I Loved You Before’, ‘Where Have I Danced With You Before” and Where Have I Known You Before’ – all played with affection and an acute sense of their improvisatory nature.

Details of Helen’s forthcoming concerts here

www.helenburford.com

There was a palpable sense of tension and expectation as I made my way through the tourist crowds milling around the Houses of Parliament. Across the road, on College Green, the press pack was settling in for a long night ahead, tracking the results as they came in and offering minute-by-minute comment and analysis. Not far away, nestled amongst government buildings, is St John’s Smith Square, an English baroque church which is home to a wide variety of concerts, including an excellent lunchtime series. And on Britain’s 2015 Election Day it was a civilised oasis of culture for those of us attending Richard Uttley’s lunchtime piano recital.

Pianist Richard Uttley presented a programme whose theme was dance. Bookended by works by Bach and Beethoven, the middle part of the concert featured the world premiere of two movements of Matthew Kaner’s ‘Dance Suite’, which Richard commissioned from the composer. The first movement, Mazurka, drew many influences from the traditional Polish dance in its rustic rhythms but also from one of the greatest exponents of the form, Chopin, in its melodic fragments. There were references to Szymanowski too in the more reflective, haunting melodies. The second movement, Sarabande, was a more meditative and lyrical, redolent of the sombre elegance of Bach’s sarabandes which are found in his French and English Suites. Uttley is a keen champion of contemporary music and he seemed completely at home in this repertoire. In the lively ‘Mazurka’ he brought crisp articulation and robust rhythmic vitality, while the ‘Sarabande’ was graceful and sensitively shaped. This same attention to detail was evident in Bach’s Partita No. 4 which opened the concert. A florid and sprightly Overture gave way to a serene Allemande, given an almost romantic cast through Uttley’s elegant legato and subtle shaping. The Partita ended with a lively Gigue. Beethoven’s Sonata in A Op 101 seems to begin in the middle of things, as if we and performer have come upon it half way through. Its elegance mirrored that of slow movements of the Bach. This is offset by a lively March, which was emphatic and decisive. Another movement of serenity was followed by an exuberant finale, underpinned by that most stable of musical devices, the fugue, and played with much wit and vigour. As if often the way when contemporary music is programmed alongside more well-known works, the new revealed striking similarities in the Bach, Beethoven and contemporary works, while the old gave the listener a useful jumping off point into the new. I very much look forward to hearing further movements from Matthew Kaner.

More on Mazurkas here

© Paul Body

On the centenary of the death of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, American pianist Garrick Ohlsson concluded his two-concert “Skryabin Focus” at London’s Wigmore Hall with a recital of works which spanned the final two decades of Scriabin’s life.

It is hard to explain exactly what makes Scriabin’s music so compelling: far easier to explain why his music is not for everyone. 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 and my concert companion included, it is this sense of excess and rapture that is so compelling. By his own admission, Garrick Ohlsson is a true Scriabin fan, the result of hearing Sviatoslav Richter perform the Seventh Piano Sonata. Ohlsson’s studies with a Russian teacher enabled him to regard Scriabin as “mainstream repertoire” and the composer’s music remains a mainstay of his repertoire.

Read my review here