Guest article by Ian Flint, a pianist and piano teacher based in North London. It was originally published on pianoteachernorthlondon.com.

Chopin’s extraordinary Ballade No.1 seems to inspire serious students of the piano, whether dedicated hobbyists or aspirant professionals, like no other single piano work. Its role at a pivotal moment in Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist has doubtless contributed to its celebrated status. More recently the sense of Zeitgeist around this masterpiece has been further enhanced by former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s book in which he outlines his endeavours to learn the piece against all the odds (Play It again: An Amateur Against the Impossible).

This article assesses the main recordings of the work available on YouTube, with the aim of helping you locate the most compelling performances. Given the range of richly rewarding interpretations on offer, from widely divergent artistic personalities, it’s clear that this piece of music truly inspires many of the world’s greatest pianists too. They are in good company: Chopin apparently told Schumann that this Ballade was his favourite among his own works.

Maurizio Pollini

Having long occupied an exalted place amongst interpreters of this work, Pollini is well represented on YouTube, mainly in recordings taken from ‘live’ performances. If Pollini is at his best when he combines his commanding brilliance with a sense of space and a willingness to yield to the more lyrical impulses of the music, one of these recordings is pre-eminent. This is indeed a magisterial account, granitic, turbulent when the music demands, but also with an enchanting sense of reverie in the second subject, truly faithful to Chopin’s sotto voce marking. Throughout the work Pollini’s phrasing comes in long, organic paragraphs, contributing to an inexorable sense of the work’s overall architecture.

 

Sviatoslav Richter

Richter is also well-served on YouTube, mostly via recordings of various concerts from the 1960’s. Richter’s interpretation remains fairly consistent across these performances. His introduction is restrained rather than consciously arresting, and leads to a subdued main theme, cowed with sorrow. In the midst of such a weighty reading, his rather insouciant way with the second limb of the second subject in the recapitulation (from bar 180) is rather quirky – hardly the con forza stipulated by the composer. But in general Richter is fully responsive to the unfolding drama, and the denouement is suitably demonic.

 

Vladimir Horowitz

Much less consistent are the various YouTube versions of Vladimir Horowitz, again from ‘live’ performances. The most impressive of these is a video of a Carnegie Hall concert. As might be expected from Horowitz, this is a big-boned rendition, but there are also many charming individual moments of lyricism and a delightfully teasing quasi-waltz (from bar 140). Even in this performance, though, there is sometimes an unwarranted heavy-handedness, a certain lumpiness in the phrasing and rhythmic relationships:

These less appealing characteristics are more pronounced on the various other Horowitz performances on YouTube. Indeed one version (posted by ‘boomzxz’) is nothing short of a travesty.

 

Arthur Rubinstein

The countless admirers of Arthur Rubinstein would cite the sheer individuality of his poetic sensibility as one of the crowning glories of his playing. His recording of the 1st Ballade, dating from 1959, certainly has those moments of insight, but some will feel that at times his rubato and tonal shading step across the border from revelatory to wilful. For example, the way he curtails the very first note of the piece or flattens out of the triplet in bar 4 seem difficult to justify. Chopin was a perpetual revisor, and was on occasion even capable of sending substantially varied versions of the same work to his different publishers, so it would be ill-advised to argue for a frigid fidelity to the text in the performance of his music. However, he notated the rhythm of this Ballade’s introduction so precisely that it seems appropriate to adhere to his written intentions.

 

Alfred Cortot

Whatever are Rubinstein’s eccentricities, they pale into insignificance when set alongside Cortot’s performance. There is certainly something of the tortured artist here, and Cortot’s rhythmic liberties are at times so spasmodic that he could scarcely be seen as a prime contender. However, if one can disregard his distortions of Chopin’s text in, for example, the second subject, one can be drawn into a quasi-improvisatory dreamscape that is oddly intoxicating.

 

Lang Lang

Yet pianists from a bygone era such as Cortot don’t have a monopoly on extreme expressive freedom. The ‘live’ video of Lang Lang reminds us that not all today’s pianists are sanitized in comparison with their predecessors. Lang Lang allows himself more poetic (and sometimes textual) licence than most of his colleagues, past and present. There is fervour and panache in abundance; indeed the overall effect might be mesmerising to someone who had never heard the piece before. For those more familiar with the composer’s score and the general stylistic history of Chopin playing, some aspects of his interpretation are likely to be puzzling at best.

 

Claudio Arrau

For more convincing examples of rhythmic flexibility one might turn to Claudio Arrau. Of the many versions available on YouTube, recorded at various stages of his career, perhaps the most consistently fulfilling is one dating from 1953. Here, his way with the third phrase of the main theme (bars 12-14) or the apogee of the second subject (bars 79-80), to give just two examples, is very rubato indeed, but seems to fit perfectly in the context. Indeed, Arrau’s second theme in general is one of the most exquisitely contoured to be found anywhere. It is true that Arrau is less scintillating than many in the more bravura passages of the work, but this is a performance to treasure for the beauty and gravitas of its musical soul.

 

Martha Agerich

In many ways Martha Agerich’s interpretation is the polar opposite of Arrau’s, in her characteristic emphasis on the volatile, tempestuous aspects of the work. Yet Agerich also finds room for a winningly tender second subject. Another strength of this performance is the dazzling clarity of her fingerwork in the central section, giving a wonderful sense of caprice.

 

Evgeny Kissin

This Russian artist strikes a fine balance between respect for the score and apparent spontaneity. Individual phrases are lovingly sculpted and intelligently related to each other; this thoughtful approach shines, for example, in his very organic transition between the first and second subjects (from bar 36). There is much profundity in both main themes (although the slightly halting quality in the first theme is somewhat curious), and the central section pulsates with verve and playfulness.

Unlike many others, Kissin observes Chopin’s con forza (bar 180) in the recapitulation of the second subject, giving this section a great sense of élan. The main body of the coda is not utterly relentless; instead he withdraws at the beginning of certain phrases, both tonally and rhythmically. Rather than detracting from the drama, this seems to magnify the ultimate annihilation.

 

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli,

In a studio version captured on video, Michelangeli offers an aristocratic reading, understated and seemingly effortless. There’s not much red-blooded passion here, and the performance isn’t free of his ‘left hand before right’ mannerism, but there are substantial compensations, notably an irresistibly languid second subject.

There are also various ‘live’ performances by Michelangeli (posted by ‘RabidCh’ and ‘incontrario motu’ among others) which are by no means carbon copies of each other, but in general he seems more emotionally involved and allows himself more expressive freedom (not always to the music’s advantage) than in the video recording.

 

Vladimir Ashkenazy

The main recording by Ashkenazy, taken from his Decca box set, has that emotionally searching quality that is one of the hallmarks of this artist. The main theme is mournfully ruminative, setting the tone for a performance full of pathos, perhaps sometimes at the expense of propulsion. Yet there is plenty of the requisite majesty and drama too, and Ashkenazy’s peerless tonal refinement makes for a deeply satisfying listening experience.

There is an earlier ‘live’ performance by Ashkenazy, recorded in Moscow in 1963. This has much more of the impetuosity of youth (it’s over a minute shorter), the expression is in general more overt and the ferocity of the coda even more seismic. The recording quality is admirably clear but shows its age in an occasional hard edge to the piano sound.

 

Murray Perahia

Perahia gives a powerful and insightful account. Some of the underlying chords in the first theme (especially in the recapitulation) are a little dry and obtrusive, but this is a minor quibble. This is a highly convincing performance, poised and intelligent, titanic when necessary but devoid of hyperbole. Other versions might be more captivating in individual aspects of the work, but few achieve Perahia’s cohesion, both in the relationships between individual phrases and the logic of the overarching structural framework. This masterful grasp of the musical narrative is perfectly illustrated, for example, in the transition (bars 188-194) leading to the final stricken intoning of the first theme.

 

Emil Gilels

Gilels has an imposingly strident manner in this work, sometimes to good effect, especially in an exciting ‘live’ performance from Leningrad in 1963. There are moments of melting beauty, but in general the emotions are conveyed quite forcefully, and sometimes the sound is a little too stark for the context, for example towards the end of the first theme.

 

Umi Garrett

There is a remarkable ‘live’ recording by the 14-year-old Umi Garrett. This is not just a question of gaping at a Wunderkind, and musing sagely if the child prodigy will be able to mature into a genuine artist. On the contrary, this is already a fully-fledged performance, full of artistic sensibility as well as marvellous dexterity, one with which to try a ‘blind test’ on your musical friends.

 

Jorge Bolet

Bolet is represented by a video recording, made late in his career, and indeed this performance has a distinct sense of a master looking back. Although many other pianists engulf us more remorselessly in the work’s turmoil, this performance is suffused with a haunting sadness that perhaps compels more deeply than some other more extrovert readings.

 

Andrei Gavrilov

Another performance of impeccable artistry comes from Andrei Gavrilov. From his suitably portentous introduction Gavrilov takes us on an absorbing journey through the work’s ever-changing landscapes. This is music-making of the utmost sincerity, and Gavrilov always directs his stupendous physical prowess to the service of the music. Towards the end of a titanic coda, his pronounced rubato and the sheer slowness of the final octave descent (perhaps too melodramatic for some listeners) crown the work with an epic fatalism. Unfortunately the rather muffled sound quality of the recording is not commensurate with the quality of the playing.

 

Krystian Zimerman

The opening bars in Zimerman’s hands immediately set the tone for a performance of great grandeur and finesse. Every musical gesture is delivered with great conviction. His rubato is highly idiomatic and his phrasing wonderfully nuanced, although he is less ethereal than some in the more introspective episodes, especially the initial statement of the second subject. The central A major statement of the second theme is toweringly imperious. Overall, Zimerman’s interpretation has a severity that seems entirely appropriate, no more so than in the main body of the coda which is relentlessly pulverising rather than frenetic, leading with gripping inevitability to a bone-crushing final catastrophe.

 

So who are the best interpreters of Chopin’s First Ballade?

With such a range of outstanding performances to choose from it is genuinely difficult to select one definitive version. The most poignantly lyrical performances are not necessarily the most riveting in the more magmatic or mercurial aspects of the work. Ashkenazy, Gavrilov, Kissin, Pollini, Perahia and Zimerman are amongst the most enthralling communicators of Chopin’s kaleidoscope of emotions. But if forced to take just one performance to the proverbial desert island, it would be Krystian Zimerman.

 

About the Author:

Ian Flint is a highly experienced and versatile pianist and teacher, who has established a thriving piano teaching practice in London, where he specialises in coaching adult pianists. Inspired by his own Russian-influenced training, he is extremely dedicated to developing each student’s physical approach to promote maximum freedom, agility and beauty of sound. For more of his articles and additional information about piano lessons, go to pianoteachernorthlondon.com.

One concert leads to another, or so it would appear based on recent events in my musical life….. Less than a month ago, at a super lunchtime concert given by the sparkling young British pianist Christina McMaster, we were chatting after her performance and she asked me if I was free in early December to play in a private house concert down in Sussex at the lovely country home of Neil Franks, Chairman of Petworth Festival. And so a couple of weeks and two rehearsals at Steinway Hall later, I found myself playing the Wilberg Carmen Fantasy with three other pianists, including Christina and Neil. To say it was great fun would be an understatement – it was possibly the most fun I have ever had at a piano: making lots of wonderful noise (music!) with like-minded people with a true passion for the piano to a very appreciative audience. Add in welcoming, generous hosts, plenty of Prosecco and wine, good food and good company, and one has the makings for a perfect evening.

The programme was eclectic (see pictures below) but it worked and I think the audience really appreciated the range and variety of music played, from Rachmaninov’s striking and vibrant Symphonic Dances (brilliantly performed by Neil and Julian) to miniatures by Satie and Etudes by Debussy (beautifully played by Christina), interspersed with works by Peteris Vasks, Chick Corea, Britten, William Grant Stiff and Prokofiev. A programme need not have a theme nor a common thread when performed by a mix of people who simply want to share their favourite music – and their love of playing that music – with others. And that sense of a shared experience, between musicians and audience, was very palpable, judging by the lovely comments from audience members during the interval and after the concert.

We are so used to hearing music in formal or very large concert venues, like the Wigmore or Royal Festival Hall, that it’s easy to forget that until about 1850, the majority of music was written for and performed in private salons and the home (and music for piano four- or six-hands was composed to satisfy a growing market in the 19th century for piano music to be played in the intimacy of one’s home). Neil Franks’ Pianos at Parkhurst (House) recreates the atmosphere of the rather less formal nineteenth-century salon or haus konzert – an atmosphere that allows for greater connection between audience and performers – and is a delightful and very positive reminder that, fundamentally, music is for sharing.

It was a privilege and a pleasure to be part of such a wonderful and hugely enjoyable evening of shared music making – for friends, with friends and amongst friends.


Petworth Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2018. A preview of the 2018 Festival will be on this blog.

For further information about the Festival, please visit www.petworthfestival.org.uk

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

When I was three years old, my Dad came back after work one evening with a tiny little electronic keyboard for me and a little book of tunes. This thing was so small – smaller than a harmonica, I remember. I think my Dad got it at the local petrol station where he had been collecting loyalty stamps and this was one of the rewards (no doubt along with some kind of tankard and a Castrol GTX baseball cap). Anyway, I remember the keyboard didn’t have black and white keys but just a series of black buttons with do re mi etc. printed below. I learned all the tunes in the book that first night and I really enjoyed it. I still remember the feel of this little gadget in my hands – I have a very strong memory for how things feel. Some time soon after that evening, my parents and I visited my grandparents’ antiques shop in the Cotswolds and there was a piano in the showroom. I somehow managed to work out the tunes I’d learned on my little keyboard on that piano and was playing away. My grandparents asked if I could pick out a tune from the radio and work it out on the piano and I seemed to be able to do this. My Mum decided I should definitely have piano lessons and so we got a piano and she learned too, to begin with. As far as I can recall, all though primary school I knew that I wanted to be a pianist and had already formed that identity for myself. I had about four weeks when I was ten when I thought I might like to be a stockbroker: I think that was because I’d seen some footage of traders doing all those fascinating hand signals on the trading floor and I thought it looked cool. I love hands, and hands doing interesting things. Other than that brief interlude I’ve always been hellbent on being a pianist. I was very lucky to have such supportive and encouraging parents. They were never pushy – they just did whatever was possible to give me the best opportunities they could and I’m deeply appreciative for all they did for me.

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

I’ve had loads of teachers over my life – way more than most people, for some reason. I don’t know why this is. I’ve had some really brilliant teachers. I’ve had a few truly terrible ones too, and, actually, I learned a tremendous amount from those awful ones in terms of what I don’t want to be, how I don’t want to play and how I don’t ever want to treat a student. Enough of the bad ones though – the good ones were oh-so-good and they made a big impact on me. My most influential teacher, with whom I studied through most of my teenage years, was Caroline McWalter. She taught me at the Junior Birmingham Conservatoire and was the best possible fit for me – always so encouraging, and I hear her all the time when I’m teaching my own students. Other big influences on me were Alexander Kelly, Darla Crispin, Martin Butler and Peter Feuchtwanger. I’m really thankful to have had some fantastic teachers – all of them very interesting people. I like interesting people……. sounds like a dumb thing to say, doesn’t it? When does anyone ever say “I don’t like interesting people”? But what I mean is that I needed people with real personality to respond to when I was a student. Personality is key.

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

Ten years ago I was at a really exciting point in my career. I’d left music college and was getting really good gigs at high profile venues and I had recording opportunities. Things were going very well but I was starting to lose my hearing. It was sporadic – my hearing would just go for several hours each day. At that same time I noticed many changes to my hands and feet. The joints would often look a purple colour and they would swell, become stiff and very painful. After many tests and much monitoring I was diagnosed with an aggressive type of rheumatoid arthritis that went on a rampage through my body. I was told by my doctor that there was a good chance I would be wheelchair-bound within four years. I was told to give up playing piano. This was devastating to me. Losing my career was the worst news I could have been given and losing my greatest joy, passion, my raison d’être was just awful. I was given a lot of serious medication to take (15 pills a day) and the news from my medical team was pretty gloomy. As my mobility decreased, some days finding it difficult to walk even a few steps, I entered a deep personal crisis. I was scared of my own body – scared to be in my body, scared of how my body was changing and scared of what my body would be like in the future. On getting the diagnosis I was sent on a course to learn about my “condition”. I was shown slides of terrible deformities and was told that this is what I’ve got to look forward to. Frankly, it was a form of torture. I can’t quite believe I had to go through five weeks of attending this impending doom/gloom fest and be told to give up hope. Their advice was basically to sit at home, take loads of drugs, don’t do much, and spend hours each evening with my arms strapped into splints. It was grim, grim, grim.

Then after a few pretty darned depressing years something suddenly changed in me and I thought “well, I’m not having this – this is not what I want for my life.” I connected with this little, tiny fire deep in me that fuelled me and gave me the confidence to change my life. It was around the same time that my father died and so big change of course was bound to occur. I understood that I had the power to heal myself. I started doing yoga (Iyengar originally but now I do kundalini yoga), I developed a wonderful meditation practice and I totally cleaned up my diet. Things started to improve and I became more and more positive and capable. I started playing piano again (I had still been teaching whilst I was ill) but I was extremely tense and found everything very difficult. I found my way to the late, great piano teacher Peter Feuchtwanger and he helped me find a very natural, easy technique and put me back on track. He also sparked my interest in Asian musics and philosophies. He really changed my life and I will be eternally grateful.

My body is my greatest teacher. I wouldn’t change a thing about what I’ve gone through. I’ve learned so much. I don’t believe that I had rheumatoid arthritis – I believe I was in a state of “dis- ease” and my body was telling me that I had to change certain aspects of my life. It was a case of soul-sickness physically manifested, lack of connectedness, and it needn’t have been medicalised. In order to transform and move into another phase of one’s life often one has to experience some pain and there is a form of “death” to go through…….. the cycles of life within one’s own life. I had some pretty dark times and I’m all the better for them. The journey from being terrified of my body to now being totally in love with it and with all that it does has been so remarkable and so valuable. These days I run, I take no medication whatsoever, I wear high heels (didn’t think I’d be able to do that again!), I play for hours and am really happy, really well and feel connected and ‘in the right place.’ The little fire I re-discovered in me several years ago is now big, beautiful, creative and passionately burning.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my very first solo album which I’ve recently recorded. It’s called BHOOMA and is inspired by the Hindu goddess representing Mother Earth, she of infinite variety. It’s a collection centred around my own compositions alongside works from across Asia and America and is due for release in 2018. There are Indian textures and Persian rhythms and quite a lot of jazz. Although most of my career has been focused around contemporary classical music, in my heart I feel much greater affinity to jazz. I used to play a lot and am now steering myself back in that direction.

It’s difficult to categorise what I do these days so recently I’ve found myself opting for terms like “post-genre” and “polystylistic.” I don’t particularly like these descriptions but they can be useful.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Pretty obvious, I guess, but my own compositions are what I play best! I seem to be a good baroque player and I also gravitate to composers with rich, resonant soundworlds like Messiaen, Somei Satoh and my old teacher Peter Feuchtwanger. Huge generalisations about to come….. A lot of French stuff suits me. American too. Russian stuff doesn’t.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

For some reason, my most memorable concert experiences are negative ones, but quite funny, some of them. For instance, I gave the opening concert of a new piano festival at a big venue in London a couple of years ago and only two people turned up. One of them was my best friend. Another time I was doing a gig at a venue, also in London, and arrived to discover that there was no middle C in the piano – caused me no end of bother having to move everything up and down an octave the whole bloody time. A few years ago in Manchester I was playing one of my very, very favourite pieces (Incarnation II by Somei Satoh) which is a hugely rich and resonant and intense work. I had built up so much sound in this small venue that it had really disturbed someone. She said to me afterwards that my playing made her feel physically sick. Charming, eh? She had to leave the room to puke.

I have also had many lovely memorable experiences too though. Having St. Paul’s Cathedral all to myself for a whole week of nightly concerts as musician-in-residence was rather marvellous. I’ve been lucky to have concerts in fabulous settings like French chateaus, candle-filled churches and once in an Italian cave. I love those wonderful concerts where you just hit the right flow and can hold everyone in a beautiful space together, in communion with sound.

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

1. Naturalness.

2. Personal authenticity.

3. You don’t have to be good at everything.

4. Don’t follow the crowd.

5. Take risks.

6. Don’t be an operative.

7. Make everything you do physically pleasurable.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Among my piano heroes are Bill Evans, Martha Argerich, Abdullah Ibrahim, Nina Simone, Rosalyn Tureck, Jeremy Denk, Nat King Cole…. there are more. Beyond the piano I love Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Handel, Monteverdi, Bach, Messiaen, Steve Reich, Shivkumar Sharma, Amjad Ali Khan, Toumani Diabaté, Elton John (childhood hero), Stevie Wonder, Scott Walker, Roxy Music, David Bowie. I could go on forever……

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I see myself in ten years’ time living in France running a cross-cultural music exchange centre in a beautiful location where musicians from all over the world can come and meet and collaborate with other musicians from across the globe. I intend to have a recording studio there and I want a venue where I can run candlelit festivals of ineffably gorgeous music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The bright silence of transcendence. There is perfect happiness in meditation.

What is your most treasured possession

My beloved piano.

I also have a small nineteenth-century bronze shrine to the goddess Lakshmi that I’m exceedingly fond of. If there was a fire in my flat there’s no way I’d be able to save my grand piano, of course, but I would make sure I took my Lakshmi shrine and my box of family photographs with me as I ran from the burning building.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Playing piano, writing music, kundalini yoga, transcendental meditation, dancing, singing, eating, drinking, going on road trips, and having as much fun as possible.

What is your present state of mind?

Full of wonder.

 

Critically acclaimed pianist, composer, multi-instrumentalist and musical explorer, Helen Anahita Wilson, debuts her latest solo project BHOOMA at the Shoreditch Treehouse on 6 December.

1. BHOOMA, NOUN = LIMITLESS FEMININE CREATIVITY

2. BHOOMA DEVI = HINDU GODDESS REPRESENTING MOTHER EARTH

Inspired by the Hindu goddess Bhooma – she of infinite creative variety – this project brings together Helen’s own compositions inspired by jazz and Asian musics alongside works by composers from across the globe. Expect Indian textures, Persian rhythms and Japanese minimalism with the intimacy of a late-night, low-light jazz club.This concert of exotica includes world premieres by Helen Anahita Wilson and Stephen Montague.

BOOK TICKETS

www.helenanahitawilson.com

Yuanfan Yang – Watercolour (Orchid Classics)

Nicholas McCarthy – Echoes (Leftnote Records)

Andrew Matthews-Owen – Halo: Music for Piano (Nimbus)

5060189560738At just 20, Yuanfan Yang is already a promising pianist and young composer. Winner of keyboard final of the 2012 BBC Young Musician, he has been a prizewinner in many other international piano competitions. The works by Schubert, Chopin and Liszt on his debut disc represent the kind of mainstream showpiece repertoire one expects from competition participants, and the music played is well-mannered and attractive, rather than attention-grabbing. Schubert’s ever-popular B-flat Impromptu has the requisite lyricism and grace, while the opening of Chopin’s darkly-hued Fantasie in F minor, Op 49 is ponderous rather than portentous. The ‘Winter Wind’ Etude and Liszt’s ‘La Campanella’ are despatched with the kind of youthful gusto one would expect from a musician of this age who has been on the competition circuit for several years now: fleet and pristine fingerwork but rather bloodless in interpretation. La Vallee d’Obermann feels too restrained and lacks the grandeur and spaciousness to really recall the profound majesty of the Alps. Far more interesting are the works composed by Yuanfan himself, colourful programmatic pieces inspired by watercolours, whose titles link them to the pieces by Liszt on this disc and also to Philip Cashian’s ‘Landscape’ and Peter Maxwell-Davis’ ‘Farewell to Stromness’, the final work on the disc, which again feels too polite – a little more Scottish lilt would be welcome. Overall, a nicely-presented “recital” disc showcasing Yuanfan’s developing talents as both pianist and composer.

 

500x500Left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy presents an altogether more mature and convincing performance on his new album ‘Echoes’, which features repertoire by Bach and Rachmaninov which he first explored as a pianist in the early part of his career, all in fine transcriptions for the left hand alone. The final track on the disc is Paul Wittengenstein’s transcription of Bach’s evergreen Prelude in C. Like McCarthy, Wittengenstein was a left-handed pianist (he lost his right arm following an injury in the First World War). If you have seen Nicholas McCarthy in concert you will know that as a left-handed player he is incredibly athletic, utilising the entire range of the keyboard. Nicholas is no novelty act pianist; he is a serious concert pianist whose superb technical ability and musicality enable him to create a rich palette of sounds, colours and shadings, from full-bodied fortissimos to delicate pianissimos, and elegant, lyrical cantabile playing (try the Andante from Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata Op 19 or Bach’s Prelude in C for particularly lovely examples of this). The album begins with a robust and entirely convincing transcription of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor. It loses nothing being played with only one hand, and the same is true for all the pieces on this disc. You would never guess that this music is played with the left hand only, such is the quality and clarity of Nicholas’s sound. The album was recorded on a Yamaha CFX concert grand and the sound quality is direct but never strident with a warm resonance, particularly in the bass. Recommended.

 

51wyuc5onpl‘Halo’ is Andrew Matthews-Owen‘s first solo disc. A highly sought-after collaborative pianist and song accompanist and noted champion of contemporary music, Matthews-Owen showcases his affinity for this repertoire in this rewarding recording of contrasting works by Joseph Phibbs, Dobrinka Tabakova and Hannah Kendall. Phibbs’ Preludes (2016) were dedicated to Matthews-Owen and are short aphoristic works whose spare simplicity, delicate melodic fragments and piquant harmonies are redolent of Schoenberg’s Kleine Klavierstucke. Matthews-Owen’s directness and clarity allows these short works to speak for themselves. Dobrinka Tabakova’s ‘Modétudes’ – brief “studies” based on the main modes (Dorian, Lydian, Phrygian etc) – are characterful miniatures whose individual musical personalities Matthews-Owen delineates with delicacy and precision, alert to their ever-shifting moods. They are folksy in their idioms and immediately accessible to the listener. Hannah Kendall’s ‘On a Chequer’d Field Array’d’ is a work in three parts, inspired by a game of chess: again, Matthews-Owen is always sensitive to the contrasts and switches of emotion in this music. Tabakova’s ‘Nocturne’ is delightful, delicate and songful, while her ‘Halo’, evoking a lunar halo seen one summer’s night, is powerfully atmospheric (the second movement, ‘To blinding shine’ for example, begins with bright rapidly repeating notes, interjected with a hymn-like motif, somewhat reminiscent of Hovhaness’s Visionary Landscapes, before moving into far more dramatic territory). This disc is a splendid advocate for contemporary piano music from a performer whose understanding of and affinity for this music is clear from the very first note to the last.

Recommended.

 

 

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

My mother studied piano and has taught piano all of her adult life. Her father has also played the piano since childhood, and has a keen interest in music, so any musical inclination comes from my mother’s side. There was always a lot of music in our house. My brothers all played something, though none of them persevered past their early teens – unfortunately I missed out on the opportunity to play in any kind of family band. Past that point there were also the sounds of more modern genres coming from different parts of the house.  I was first introduced to the piano aged five but at first didn’t really take to it, even though it seems there were things I could do without needing much instruction.  About a year later, I found that some school friends had begun regular piano lessons.  I didn’t like the idea of their being better than me, so from that point I started to take it more seriously! As I moved onto more challenging works, and to those by the great composers, I really felt a strong connection to music, and it was only a few years later that I realised that I wanted to be a musician.

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

My mother was my first teacher. She realised quite early that I needed additional guidance and, age 9, I also began to have lessons with Hilary Coates, and then soon after with Hilary’s husband, Christopher Elton, who is professor of piano (and at the time Head of Keyboard) at the Royal Academy of Music.  Hilary helped to focus and fine tune my technical development in those early stages, and Christopher guided me musically through my teens and into adulthood.

My first inspirations among other artists were some of those whose recordings were in our collection – pianists like Horowitz, Argerich and Rubinstein. I recall at that time being particularly inspired by listening to Rubinstein playing Chopin – in particular his carrying of a cantabile melody mesmerised me. In my early teens, I became interested in the playing of other pianists born or active in the first half of the century – Cortot, Rosenthal, Friedman, Edwin Fischer, Feinberg, Schnabel amongst others – and found in their playing particular aesthetics, ideas and inspiration to inform and enrich my own approach.  I also became interested in other historical performers.  Wilhelm Furtwängler’s conducting was a particular inspiration – the wholly ‘organic’ way in which he applied often acute agogics, always maintaining fluidity, was remarkable, as was the depth of the sonority he drew from the string sections.

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

After the success in the BBC Young Musician Competition when I was 11, there was some pressure to become a full-time performer, but I’m glad that my parents and I resisted this, retaining two periods of a month each year in which I’d give concerts, but with the majority of my time reserved for music lessons and my wider education.  However, the transition from this pattern to performing more or less the whole year round in my late teens was a challenge.  I’d been used to the luxury of having relatively long periods for preparation and only playing one or two concerti and one recital programme each season.  The need to have a good deal more repertoire on the go at any given time meant I needed to make changes to my preparation regime.  It was tough at the outset of having to make these adjustments, but I managed to soldier through this period and realised that this was very much part of being a concert pianist.

Which particular works do you feel you play best?

I can’t answer this directly because I don’t think about works in quite this way.  Rather, I look at repertoire to which I feel a genuine connection (above all on an emotional level).  This could be a work by Couperin from the early Baroque or, as with this coming season, the Berg Sonata.  The question of whether a particular performance is any good or not is a separate issue, but I don’t personally feel that I’m best in, say, a given composer or period.

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

I enjoy variety from one season to the next – while also striving to expand my musical horizons over time – and similarly within programmes. I can listen with pleasure to a recital of three Schubert sonatas, say, but I know that this kind of programming is not for me as a performer.  Perhaps I could flesh out my approach using this season’s programme as an example.  I enjoyed greatly playing Bach’s 4th Partita five years ago and wanted to play another of the suites, choosing the fifth French Suite which is one of my favourites.  I was considering programming Brahms op.119 – having performed a number of the chamber works and his 1st Piano Concerto I wanted now to explore some later works – when Brett Dean sent me his pieces Hommage à Brahms, written for Emmanuel Ax as interludes between each of the four Brahms Op.119 works. I thought it was very effective as a set, with the Dean pieces providing illuminating contrasts to the Brahms, and that it was fascinating to have this juxtaposition of old and new.

I have felt close to Berg’s music since performing some of his songs during my Royal Academy days. I also relished getting to know his violin concerto by reading it through with a friend who was preparing it. I love this rich and dense harmonic world, with its tonal ambiguity, whole-tone scales and chromaticism.   I think it is fascinating to consider that Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres midi d’un faune was written just a year after the Brahms op.119, and it is an ideal preface to the Berg sonata – Pierre Boulez called Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune the beginning of modern music.  Debussy had used whole-tone scales and also unstable tonality, evoking atmospheres in sound that had not been known in Western music until that time.  Of course, Debussy’s work is for orchestra… However, Debussy’s champion and friend George Copeland had made a transcription for piano, as had Leonard Borwick.  There is a telling quote from Copeland about his arrangement: “I spoke to [Debussy] of my desire to transcribe some of his orchestral things for the piano — music which I felt to be essentially pianistic. He was at first sceptical, but finally agreed, and was in complete accord with the result. He was particularly delighted with my piano version of L’après-midi d’un faune, agreeing with me that in the orchestral rendering, which called for different instruments, the continuity of the procession of episodes was disturbed. This has always seems to me the loveliest, the most remote and essentially Debussyan, of all his music, possessing, as it does, a terrible antiquity, translating into sound a voluptuous sense that is in no wise physical.” Everyone knows this work and the orchestral original is indelibly imprinted.  I suppose the wanton challenge of playing a piano transcription thus appealed to me all the more…  In the end, I felt that Borwick’s was more effective in many sections (Copeland could be somewhat sketchy), so what I’m playing is mostly Borwick, with some bars from Copeland and some of my own.  I’m ending the programme with Gaspard.  I’d played and recorded this in my late teens, but I love this music and felt it was time to return to it.

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

Although the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall is not a friendly one for piano (it is cavernous and projection will always be an issue), I particularly enjoy the atmosphere at the Proms. The audience is so responsive, yet they are so very quiet before you start playing. It’s hard to think of another venue where one can so immediately feel the response of audience members.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It would be difficult to pick out one…but if I had to I might pick out the Proms once again! I have been lucky enough to have played both on the First and Last nights, which are both unique events. Certainly for my first Proms experience as a performer, playing Liszt 2 on the first night was very memorable indeed.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I’m sure whole books could be written on the subject of how to define success in music!  For me, having given a performance that seems to have been genuinely appreciated by colleagues brings what most feels like ‘success’.  This is one of the reasons I am increasingly drawn to chamber music.  It’s lovely if a conductor or the leader of an orchestra says something truly complimentary after a concerto, for example, but playing with a handful of colleagues and finding during the performance and afterwards that we seemed all to be firing off one another’s imagination and involvement is a wonderful feeling.

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

I don’t feel qualified to give any general answer, not least as I sense that each person needs to find his or her way of connecting deeply to music.  It could be that a promising young musician listens to the most magical (to me) performance of a Chopin Nocturne and is not particularly moved, but is shaken to the core by the last movement of Mahler 6.  I don’t want to sound in the least didactic but I have the feeling that seeking that deep connection – via whichever route works best – is the necessary starting point.  After that, ideas and concepts will begin much more easily to fall into place.

 

British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is internationally recognized for his electrifying performances and insightful interpretations. His virtuosic command over the most strenuous technical complexities underpins the remarkable depth and understanding of his musicianship. Benjamin is renowned for his distinctive sound, described as ‘poetic and gently ironic, brilliant yet clear-minded, intelligent but not without humour, all translated through a beautifully clear and singing touch’ (The Independent), and making him one of the most sought-after young pianists in the world.

Benjamin first came to prominence as the outstanding winner of the Keyboard Final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition at the age of eleven, and he was invited to perform with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the First Night of the 2011 BBC Proms at just nineteen. Since then, he has become an internationally regarded pianist and was announced in 2016 as the inaugural recipient of The Ronnie and Lawrence Ackman Classical Piano Prize with the New York Philharmonic. As part of this he returns to New York in April 2018, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen as well as chamber music with members of the orchestra at the Tisch Center for the Arts at 92nd Street Y.

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(photo: Patrick Allen/Opera Omnia)

Thursday 7th December 2017, 7pm

An evening of Russian music and poetry and a chance to explore Dorich House, the unusual Art Deco former home of Dora Gordine, artist and sculptor.

Music for flute and harp performed by Alena Lugovkina and Anne Denholm

Readings from Russian poetry by Susan Porrett

Ticket price includes Prosecco and gingerbread and entry to the museum

Doors open 7pm to view the museum, concert starts at 7.30pm in the studio

Space is limited and early booking is highly recommended

BOOK TICKETS

One of London’s hidden gems, Dorich House Museum at Kingston University is located a ‘Deer’s Leap’ from Richmond Park, along Kingston Vale in South West London.

Dorich House is the former studio home of the Russian sculptor Dora Gordine and her husband the Hon. Richard Hare, a scholar of Russian art and literature. Now Grade II listed, the building was completed in 1936, to Gordine’s design, and is an exceptional example of a modern studio house created by and for a female artist. Following Gordine’s death in 1991 the house was acquired and renovated by Kingston University and is now open to the public as a fully accredited museum. In the spirit of Gordine’s exemplary life and career, the Museum operates as an international centre to promote and support women creative practitioners

www.dorichhousemuseum.org.uk

This concert is part of Dorich House Museum’s Russian Winter Weekend and is presented by 7 Star Arts in association with Dorich House Museum