Pianist Anna Maria Stachula was born in Poland, and began playing the piano when she was 6 years old. She studied at the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice with C. Stanczyk and Klara Langer-Danecka, and moved to the UK five years ago.
She possesses a level of talent and virtuoso technique one would be happy to hear at the Wigmore Hall, yet despite this she is presently virtually unknown in the UK. By day, she works in a Post Office sorting office. She is currently studying with pianist John Humphreys at Birmingham Conservatoire.
On 27th May Anna is giving an afternoon recital at The Red Hedgehog, an intimate arts venue in north London. Her programme includes Beethoven Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op 57 ‘Appassionata’, Chopin Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, and the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brilliante Op. 22, and Schumann ‘Abegg’ Variations, Op. 1 and Carnival, Op. 9. Do please support this talented artist by attending her concert, if you can.
Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage Suisse (published 1855) are not fictional imaginings conjured up at home but his responses, in music, to the alpine landscape and landmarks of Switzerland, which he visited with Marie d’Agoult during the period 1835-1839. While owing a great deal to the romantic poetry of Goethe and Byron (in particular Childe Harold), these are also musical ‘postcards’, and the landscape and places they describe can still be viewed and visited today.
Having just enjoyed another holiday in the French Alps, quite close to the places of Liszt’s peregrinations, it is easy to see how the landscape inspired him. Driving down the autoroute south of Dijon, the first intimation one has of a change in the landscape, from the dull, flat agricultural land of the French interior only occasionally relieved by sugar-beet processing plants and statuesque wind turbines, are the Jura mountains, but these are mere trifles compared to the soaring grandeur of the Alps, whose snowy peaks rise up around Geneva and its lake. One really begins to appreciate their awesomeness when one leaves the motorway to begin a 30 minute ascent up twisting mountain roads to one of the many villages and ski stations that nestle in the high valleys. With spring now underway, there are cowslips and other wild flowers in bloom, and streams, augmented by the melting snow, gush noisily down the slopes, rushing headlong to sea level.
The peaks and high slopes are still snow-covered and on a sunny day the snow glints and glistens like crystal. The sky is intensely blue, the sun, in the thinner mountain air, hot on one’s skin. After a few days in this glorious landscape, one feels refreshed and healthy, released from the smog and noise of the city. Franz and Marie probably felt the same.
The alpine landscape of today isn’t so different from the landscape Liszt encountered in the mid-nineteenth century. Approaching Switzerland from the east, he probably enjoyed the great peaks of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. Travel would have been far more difficult then, with few proper roads through the mountains, but local guides could be hired to take one on walking tours, and there were plenty of refuges and hostels for weary travellers to rest in at the end of a day spent hiking.
In ‘Pastoral’ Liszt evokes lush mountain pastures, wild flowers, birdsong and fauna, and the pleasure of being in such a landscape; while ‘Au Bord du Source’ describes a mountain stream, playfully carving its course towards the sea. ‘Au Lac de Wallenstadt’ vividly captures the image of a beautiful mountain lake, a light breeze ruffling its clear surface.
‘Orage’ describes the rapidly changing weather of the Alps: I’ve sat and watched a storm brewing in the opposite valley, dark clouds rolling in, the heavy sky scored with shards of lightning, and Liszt brilliantly captures the storm with unsettling chromatic scales in octaves, massive left-hand chords and cadenza-like passages.
‘Vallee d’Obermann’ is a more pensive and philosophical piece, and the place itself does not exist. Rather, the music is based on a romantic literary construct. Built on a simple descending figure, which is recapitulated many times throughout the piece, the music is both imposing and wistful, with its impressive double octaves, evoking the grandeur of the landscape, and graceful melodic lines.
‘Eclogue’ returns to the pastoral mood of the earlier pieces. Short and gentle, it evokes the joy of the dawning of a new day. In ‘Le mal du pays’ the homesickness of the traveller is evoked, tinged with depression and yearning, and a poignant farewell to country. Its ending, in the lower register, brings no relief from the melancholy mood. In the final piece of the suite, ‘Les cloches de Genève’, (‘The Bells of Geneva’) the music is less evocative of the sound of bells, but its mood, underlined by one of Liszt’s more romantic melodies, suggests joy and love, providing an antidote to the dark mood of the previous piece.
British pianist Peter Donohoe describes these pieces as ‘very personal and visual… highly emotional for composer, performer and audience’, and a good performance (such as Donohoe’s at the Southbank in February – review here) can be intense, romantic and highly concentrated. The works from the second year (Italy) are, by contrast, more concerned with literary and artistic impulses (a painting by Raphael, a sculpture by Michelangelo, the poetry of Petrarch) but are no less interesting and absorbing, to listen to and to play.
For a good recording of the complete Années de Pèerinage, look no further than Lazar Berman, though I also like Wilhelm Kempf, particularly in the three Petrarch Sonnets.
The excellent International Piano Series at the Southbank Centre continued with a fine recital of music by Haydn, Bartók, Debussy and Chopin by acclaimed and very popular (judging by the full house) Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.
In this age of flashy piano pyrotechnics and daring designer concert outfits, Andsnes comes across as refreshingly understated……..read my full review here
Is classical music in need of a revolution? The industry probably is, but classical events themselves seem to tick over quite nicely in my view. But then, I’m the kind of person who is happy to sit in silence for hours on end and take my medicine. That usually involves besuited, unspeaking and unsmiling performers presenting the music in socially stifling environments, on the shared assumption that the elevating sounds that result make it all worthwhile.
It is easy to see why many people disagree that this is a healthy way for an artform to function, and Classical Revolution is out to do things differently. The core goal here is to get more people listening to classical music by taking it out of the concert hall and presenting somewhere more friendly, on this occasion a gay(ish) bar in Soho. There are other innovations too, sofas for example – a couple of those in the Purcell Room would certainly be welcome. And spoken introductions, which I’m certainly in favour of. Despite the rhetoric of revolution (that’s a metaphor right, these guys aren’t actually planning to shoot anybody?), the classical soirée format is hardly new. But Classical Revolution has a specific format that’s fresh and interesting. It is an American thing that has only just reached the UK, but on the strength of this first outing, I think it might have legs.
There is still a bit of an identity crisis going on though. ‘Informality’ is applied to what is essentially a mixed classical recital. Talking, drinking and background noise all play a part in the ambience. But nobody here this evening was prepared to treat the performances as background music, and nor should they, as the quality of the playing was very high and deserved close attention. So there was a definite change in atmosphere when the first act began. The programme opened with Bach’s First Cello Suite, played by Richard Harwood. His account was compelling, but with a lightness that was ideal for the occasion. But as soon as he started, everyone stopped talking and started listening. That came as a surprise to me, given the spirit of informality that the event promotes. I had an idea to spark up a conversation or something, but it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. It reminded me of the story about Eric Satie conducting one of his ‘furniture music’ pieces to a Paris audience stunned into silence by the bizarre sounds. Satie’s solution was to turn round and demand that everyone keep talking.
None of that here though. It turned out we didn’t actually have to talk during the music, listening is fine too. And there was plenty here worth listening to. I understand that the programme had been drawn up late in the day, so the diversity of the performers and repertoire was down to chance as much as anything. Nevertheless, I was impressed at the diversity of the music, and also at the fact that there was no pandering to populist tastes. One approach to this sort of thing could be to ensure that all the music on the programme is familiar and friendly, but extended works by Judith Weir and Schnittke demonstrated that the organisers had more faith in their audience. That said, the concept of ‘classical’ music was ring-fenced to a certain extent. I spoke to a singer in the audience (you know who you are) are asked if she would be performing. It turned out that she wasn’t allowed because she does rock and roll. Apparently she’s looking into an Elvis Costello/Brodsky Quartet type collaboration for a future event, but for the time being classical is classical as far as the revolution is concerned. The only exception was The Frolick, a singer and ensemble act (ensemble of one on this occasion) specialising in bawdy 18th century songs. Apparently this counts as ‘classical’ on account of the music’s vintage, and sure enough, you’re unlikely to meet it in most non-classical club nights.
I attended the event as a guest of the organiser, Simon Hewitt-Jones. It’s not usually my policy to own up to the freebies that get me into classical events, but when I told Simon I’d be writing about the evening, he insisted I make a full disclosure. I suggested that I could just write a bad review to compensate for any possible bias, but apparently that is missing the point. There is too much nepotism and insider trading in the classical music world, at least in Simon’s view, and that is part of the problem that Classical Revolution seeks to address. After all, how are you going to get new people involved in an event like this when everybody knows everybody else? And even worse, pretends not to?
Professional musicians are an important ingredient for this concept, just simply to perform the music to the standard required to show off classical music at its best. But non-specialists (‘newbies’ was the evening’s buzzword) are the target audience, and I wasn’t convinced that many people here were not musos of one sort or another. That said, the relaxed format did allow the listeners and performers to interact socially, and I appreciated the opportunity to have a chat with some of the players later on. That’s something that this format could promote much more, and for me it was considerably more valuable than the introductions from the stage.
The evening concluded with a chamber music jam, which was wonderful, but the fact that the punters were now on the stage playing Schubert at a professional level only further underlined the fact that a large proportion of the audience were professional musicians. Still, the drinks were flowing by then and the relaxed atmosphere was certainly convivial. I had to leave them to it to catch the last train – the gig running into the night is another notable distinction between a chamber concert and a classical club night. But I left with the pleasurable sensation of Schubert’s C Major Quintet still ringing in my ears and the feeling that the evening had been a success. A few minutes earlier, the bar takings had reached the level required to guarantee a repeat of the event next month. I’d certainly recommend it – especially if you’re a newbie.
Gavin Dixon is a writer, journalist and editor specialising in classical music. He tweets as @saquabote and blogs at Orpheus Complex
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