(photo credit: Julia Wesely)

For the Wigmore neophyte, I doubt I could have selected a better concert to introduce my companion for the evening to the delights of London’s “sacred shoebox”: Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili dazzled in a highly accomplished performance of music by Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ and a selection of short virtuosic works by Liszt.

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The piano music of Olivier Messiaen is not performed enough for my taste, partly because there aren’t that many pianists around who are willing to tackle it. One notable exception is British pianist Peter Donohoe, who studied with Messiaen’s second wife Yvonne Loriod, and who played the composer’s music to the composer himself during his studies in Paris in the 1970s.

The concert at London’s Institut Français, part of the three-day It’s All About Piano Festival, was originally to include the London première of La Fauvette Passerinette, a work fully sketched by Messiaen in 1961 which was discovered by Peter Hill, who worked with Messiaen between 1986 and 1991, and which Hill completed in 2012. Sadly, Peter Hill was unwell, and so the work was introduced by Elaine Gould from Faber Music and Peter Donohoe, who played brief, appetite-whetting extracts, and relayed some interesting and entertaining anecdotes of his studies with Monsieur and Madame Messiaen, and his experiences of performing Messiaen’s music. Benjamin Frith stepped in at the last minute to perform Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen with Peter Donohoe

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© Neda Navaee

I seldom select concerts to review based on performer. An interesting programme is usually what will pique my interest, and this was certainly true when browsing the Wigmore’s spring season of concerts: it is unusual to find Ligeti and Messiaen in the same programme. I didn’t know the performer and was unaware at the time of booking the concert that he was first prize and gold medal winner of the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition.

Winners of competitions are often paraded before audiences with the promise of greatness. Generally young performers poised on the brink of an international career, too many may offer a bland synthesis of music, technically polished but lacking in insight or maturity. Not so Antonii Baryshevskyi, a young pianist from Kiev, whose impressive Wigmore Hall debut combined pristine technical facility and consummate musicality in a challenging and highly varied programme.

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Teacher and pupil took the stage at London’s Wigmore Hall on Friday 20th February in a joint concert by Maria João Pires and Pavel Kolesnikov featuring late works by Schubert and Beethoven, and Schumann’s love letter in music to Clara Wieck, the Fantasy in C, Opus 17.

Pavel Kolesnikov © Colin Way
Pavel Kolesnikov © Colin Way

Pavel Kolesnikov, the young Siberian pianist who has already garnered many prizes and much praise for his playing, is a soloist of the Music Chapel in Brussels, studying with Maria João Pires as part of her ‘Partitura Project’ which offers a benevolent relationship between artists of different generations and seeks to thwart the “star system” by offering an alternative approach in a world of classical music too often dominated by competitions and professional rivalry. In keeping with the spirit of the Partitura Project, the pianists shared the piano in two works for piano four-hands by Schubert and each remained on the stage while the other performed their solo. From the outset, this created a rather special ambience of support and encouragement.

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Interviewed in the programme notes for Verdi’s La Traviata at ENO, director Peter Konwitschny explains that the subject matter of the plot remains daring and “socially explosive”, even in our more permissive times. For at the heart of Verdi’s narrative is Violetta, a tart, a prostitute, a whore (earlier productions from another time refer to her more delicately as “a courtesan”). It was Verdi’s apparent sympathy for this character which shocked his audiences. Violetta may not shock us now, coming at the opera with our 21st-century sensibilities, but the manner in which she is viewed and treated by those around her as the narrative unfolds still has the power to make us uneasy. Like Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, Violetta is the “tart with a heart” and the only true human being in the piece.

ENO’s La Traviata was first seen in this production in 2013 and many of the original cast remain, including tenor Ben Johnson, who plays Alfredo as a naive bookworm, complete with duffle coat and specs, suffering the teasing of the boozy chorus in the first scene as he proposes a toast to Violetta. His warmth and passion is convincing throughout the drama, and particularly poignant when he calls out to Violetta from the stalls (disturbing the front row to emphasise his desperation). Elizabeth Zharoff makes her debut in the role of Violetta, playing her a fiesty yet vulnerable mannequin in the opening scene, before she exchanges her stiff crimson party frock for comfy country clothes (a lumberjack shirt and Timberland boots) in Scene 2. Her coloratura singing at the end of Scene 1 is exquisitely precise, freighted with anguish. Anthony Michaels-Moore, who makes his appearance as Alfredo’s father in Scene 2, is a powerful presence, and like the other leading roles, that power is tinged with sensitivity.

Alongside these fine singers, the setting was, for me, crucial to the success of the production. The last time I saw La Traviata was in a film version, all crinolines, ringlets, chandeliers and breathless over-acting which disguised the true nature of the narrative. Here, the simple setting – bordello-red curtains cleverly painted with trompe l’oeil pleats and used to sensual and dramatic effect as the drama plays out (they are torn down in the final scene), and as single chair – allow us to focus on the psychology and raw emotion of La Traviata. And with few visual distractions, one can also appreciate Verdi’s music: the chilly opening bars are played as if heard in the next room, a musical signpost to what happens later, and there is also some wonderfully pared down playing by the wind section in particular, under the direction of Roland Böer.  This production has lost all the ballet music too and some aria repeats, and there is no interval, reducing the running time to a spare 110 minutes. The chorus are sloshed, voyeuristic party-goers, in DJ’s and LBD’s, revelling in schadenfreude at Violetta’s situation and Alfredo’s innocence. In the final scene, when the doctor is summoned to Violetta, he appears in his party hat, cocked at a drunken angle, with streamers instead of stethoscope. This is a production which really gets to the heart of what this opera is about: passionate love, premature death and the fundamental humanity of its tragic heroine.

My husband accompanied me, my regular opera companion being unwell, and I was pleased that he, who is, by his own confession, “opera allergic” (after I forced him to endure Britten’s ‘Death in Venice’ at Glyndebourne some 26 years ago) enjoyed the production and was able to appreciate both the spectacle and emotional impact.

La Traviata continues in repertory at ENO at London’s Coliseum

It is a mark of the popularity of the BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concerts at London’s Wigmore Hall, and the high calibre of the performers, that these hour-long recitals are regularly sold out. Indeed, when I arrived at the Wigmore to hear Steven Osborne in a programme of music by Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky, there was a long queue of people waiting for returns. I relinquished my spare ticket (concert companion was indisposed) so that someone else could enjoy Osborne’s superb pianistic mastery and sensitive musicality. The theme of the concert was pictures: Mussorgsky’s popular and evergreen Pictures at an Exhibition preceded by a selection of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux from the lesser-known Op.33.

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Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega
Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega

 

Listen to the concert on BBC iPplayer

Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux – an earlier article on the Opus 33