7 Star Arts launches a new series of concerts in the iconic Jazz Room at the Bull’s Head

Iconoclassics features leading, critically-acclaimed classical musicians, more at home in the world’s great concert halls than in a jazz club, but all happy to break free from the conventional classical music scene. The small size of the Jazz Room creates a special connection between musicians and audience, and allows the musicians to present music in a more accessible and relaxed way.

In keeping with the main focus of The Jazz Room, programmes in the Iconoclassics series will explore links between classical music and jazz, and will include works by Ravel and Gershwin, two composers whose music crossed genres and pushed the boundaries of what we define as “classical music”.

Iconoclassics launches on 14 February 2018 with Classic Valentine – a special concert for Valentine’s Day featuring David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano). This will be followed on 11 March by a solo concert by internationally-acclaimed pianist Anthony Hewitt, who has been praised for his “fine, poetic and communicative musicianship” (BBC Music Magazine).

This promises to be a fascinating and absorbing new series in an intimate venue.

Purists may balk at hearing classical music in a venue normally reserved for jazz, but the small size of the jazz room lends itself to the right kind of concentrated listening and intimacy of expression

  • Frances Wilson/The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

 

Alexander Scriabin

This week I had the pleasure of a “house concert” at my home, during which the pianist Anthony Hewitt played Alexander Scriabin’s Preludes, Opp 11, 13, 15, 16 and 17 on my lovely antique Bechstein. This was an opportunity for Tony to put the programme before a small invited audience of friends ahead of public concerts and a recording. It was a very enjoyable evening of “music amongst friends”, enlivened by beautifully rich, textural and colourful playing.

Scriabin was following in a great tradition of prelude writing which stretches back to Bach, and beyond to the Renaissance, when musicians would use an improvisatory Praeludium (Prelude) as an opportunity to warm up fingers and check the instrument’s tuning and sound quality. Keyboard preludes began to appear in the 17th century as introductory works to keyboard suites. The duration of each prelude was at the discretion of the performer and the pieces retained their improvisatory qualities.

German composers began pairing preludes with fugues during the second half of the seventeenth century, and of course the most famous of these are Bach’s ’48’ from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which influenced many composers in the following centuries, most notably Fryderyk Chopin who based his 24 Preludes op 28 on Bach’s model, traversing all the major and minor keys. Chopin freed the Prelude from its previously introductory purpose, and transformed these short pieces into independent concert works, which are widely performed today, both in programmes and as encores, and remain amongst Chopin’s most popular and well-known pieces.

Other notable composers of Preludes were of course Debussy and Rachmaninov, as well as Olivier Messaien, whose Huit Preludes hark back to Debussy in atmosphere and titles, but also look forward to his later piano music in their colourful harmonies and unusual chords. Shostakovich followed both Bach’s and Chopin’s models by writing sets of Preludes and Fugues and Preludes, and Nikolai Kapustin has written 24 Preludes in Jazz Style, Op 53, and a set of Preludes and Fugues. It seems the genre is alive and well.

Scriabin wrote some 85 Preludes, and his Op 11 set (1896) follow Chopin’s in their organisation (cycling through all the major and minor keys) and even make direct reference to Chopin’s music. Indeed, such is their closeness to Chopin’s model in style, texture and harmonies, many could easily be mistaken for Chopin’s own music. Some appear to “borrow” directly from Chopin – one opens with the unmistakable motif of the Marche Funebre from Chopin’s B-flat minor Piano Sonata – while others seem more akin to Chopin’s Études in their technical challenges and sparkling passagework. The Opp 11, 13, 15, 16 and 17 are sometimes called The Travel Preludes, though they were not explicitly a travelogue by the composer; rather examples of how his travels around Europe allowed him to absorb different musical styles. (It is easy to forget, given Russia’s turbulent history in the 20th century, that at the end of the 19th century, the country was a major player in western European culture.) These Opuses also demonstrate how rapidly Scriabin’s musical style was developing at that time. The later Preludes are more redolent of Scriabin’s piano sonatas and show the influence of French music in their sensuous colourful harmonies and lush textures. All share one distinct characteristic: they are, in true Prelude style, short works, some so fleeting they last barely a minute.

In our house concert, Tony presented the Opus 11 set in the first half of the concert, and the Opp 13, 15, 16 and 17 in the second. As my husband commented afterwards, what was so charming about this programme, was that one was able to enjoy a huge variety of music in one sitting, and the programme was sufficiently involved not to require any additional material, such as an Etude or other short work.

Anthony Hewitt performs Scriabin’s Preludes at the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, on Tuesday 18th March. Further details here. He will also be recording the complete Preludes of Scriabin, for release in 2015, the centenary of the composer’s death.

One of the nicest aspects of my blogging and reviewing is that it has put me in touch with a network of interesting musical people – musicians, journalists and writers, promoters, and classical music enthusiasts – and has enabled me to enjoy music in a variety of different venues and settings.

My latest musical outing was an invitation to a run through of Promenade à Gaspard, a new “mixed genre” production featuring piano music by Liszt, Ravel & Mussorgsky, accompanied by readings and illustrated with pictures. The pianist was Anthony Hewitt, the reader actress Susan Porrett, who is involved in a similar concert concept, Divine Fire, which examines the relationship between Chopin and Sand through music and readings. The concert took place in an elegant town house with views across the river at Barnes, a setting which provided an enjoyable intimacy and informality to the evening’s entertainment, and was particularly appropriate for the Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs.

Anthony Hewitt, pianist

After champagne, general introductions and socialising, we were ushered upstairs to the host’s spacious piano room. Despite the fact that the event was billed as an “informal first try out”, there was nothing unrehearsed about Tony’s playing which was colourful, committed and convincing throughout (he later admitted that this was the first time he had played Pictures At An Exhibition through as a complete work, though one would never have guessed from his expert reading of this monumental work).

Susan Porrett, actress

The first half opened with a handful of Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs (Ständchen von Shakespeare, Die Forelle, Gretchen am Spinnrade, Auf dem Wasser zu singen and Der Erlkönig), each preceded by a reading of Goethe’s text which inspired the song. It was really interesting to be given additional visual cues from the poetry, as well as the pictures created in the music itself (in Tony’s hands, Schubert’s eponymous trout was lively and playful), and one could carry an image from the readings throughout the musical performance. Words and music complemented one another extremely well in these short pieces, bringing the music to life in new ways.

Ravel’s famously difficult Gaspard de la Nuit is based on a poem by Aloysius Bertrand. Once again, each movement was preceded by a reading from the poem by Susan Porrett. This combined with Tony’s dramatic and virtuosic playing brought Ravel’s music to life to great effect, the words shining a new angle on the music while we listened.

After a short interval, Mussorgsky’s Pictures At an Exhibition took centre stage, and Susan’s introductory reading described the pictures which Mussorgsky sought to portray in his score. The music is extremely “visual” in its own right, Mussorgsky painting contrasting images with the use of recurring motifs, textures, and tempo, and he took inspiration directly from pictures by his friend Viktor Hartmann. In this production, the pictures will be projected behind the pianist, changing as the movements of the music progress. My only worry about this is that the pictures should not distract the listener from the music, and therefore need to segue slowly from one to another. This was a fine performance, even more impressive for being only a few feet away from the pianist, allowing a special insight into just how technically demanding this work is to play.

I enjoyed the evening very much and look forward to seeing Promenade à Gaspard again when the format has been tweaked and refined for public performance.

For information about this, and other similar concert concepts, please go to

www.sevenstarconcerts.com

Divine Fire, performed by Viv Maclean and Susan Porrett, is at Bridport Arts Centre on Saturday 3rd August. Further details and tickets here

www.anthonyhewitt.co.uk