Leon McCawley (photo: Clive Barda)

My first concert outing of 2013 was to hear British pianist Leon McCawley at London’s Wigmore Hall. The penultimate concert in Leon’s Mozart Sonatas cycle was my first review for Bachtrack, back in April 2011. This is my third Bachtrack review of this fine artist, who seamlessly combines a calm, self-possessed stage presence with immaculate technique, versatility and musical integrity.

Read my full review here

Leon McCawley’s Meet the Artist interview

A retrospective of music I’ve reviewed over the year. 2012 has been one of my busiest years as a concert-goer, not least because of my reviewing job for Bachtrack (since April 2011). This has enabled me to get to many more concerts, and I’ve heard a great range of performers (not just pianists) and repertoire. Where relevant, I’m including a link to my review.

January

Peter Jablonski at QEH: a bit hit and miss, this one. I felt Jablonski was far more comfortable in the jazz-oriented repertoire (Copland and Gershwin) and Barber’s Op 26 Piano Sonata. But I’m glad I went, because he was a pianist I was curious to hear. Review

February

Marc-André Hamelin, Wigmore Hall. Hamelin wowed me at the Proms last summer, in a late-night all-Liszt programme, and he did it again with an ambitious, athletic and highly varied programme of music by Haydn, Villa-Lobos, Stockhausen, and more Liszt. Definitely one of the highlights of my concert year. Review

Peter Donohoe, QEH. Peter showed how Debussy should be played in his performance of Estampes, and then went on to demonstrate the invention and intellect of Liszt in an absorbing and at times very personal performance of the first year of the Années de Pèlerinage. His concert closed with a coruscating Bartok Sonata. A fine concert by one of the UK’s most acclaimed pianists (and a thoroughly nice bloke too!) Review

Peter featured in my Meet the Artist interview series – read his interview with me here

March

Truls Mørk (cello) and Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), Wigmore Hall. I love the lunchtime concerts at the Wigmore and quite often nip down there after work for an hour of quality music. Mørk and Buniatishvili came together to perform one of Beethoven’s most miraculous late works and Rachmaninov’s atmospheric and wide-ranging Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19. Review

François-Frédéric Guy, QEH. A Frenchman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Beethoven, playing Beethoven. A sensitive opening movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, and a monumental and philosophical Hammerklavier. Sadly, the evening was marred by much throat-clearing and coughing from the audience, which did not go unremarked by the performer. This is a pianist I would definite hear again. Review

Leif Ove Andsnes, QEH. A pianist whom I much admire for his understated manner and ability to allow the music to speak for itself. An enjoyable mixed programme in which Andsnes moved seamlessly from the mannered classicism of Haydn through to the romance of Chopin, the percussion of Bartok and soundwashes of Debussy. Review

May

Yuja Wang, QEH. I went to hear Wang purely out of curiosity, for much has been written about her playing and her concert attire. It was an interesting concert, but I felt this artist needs to live with some of her repertoire for longer to fully appreciate it and communicate it to the audience. Review

Leon McCawley, Wigmore Hall. Another excellent lunchtime concert by another pianist who is able to put the music first before ego. Chopin, Debussy and Schumann followed by an enjoyable green room chat. Review

Leon McCawley features in my Meet the Artist series – read his interview with me here

Lars Vogt, QEH. Another rather mixed offering. Some charming pieces for children and an ill-judged approach to Chopin’s iconic Funeral March from the B-flat minor Sonata. And Vogt’s gurning was rather off-putting too. (Hear me talking about this concert in my podcast for Bachtrack). Review

July

François-Frédéric Guy & Jean-Efllam Bavouzet, Wigmore Hall. French elan and Russian avant-garde combined in a stunning lunchtime concert. The sparkling two-piano version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring certainly roused many elderly Wigmore regulars out of their post-lunch slumber! Review

L’Arpeggiata, Cadogan Hall (Chamber Prom 3). An ensemble I have long admired on disc, it was a real treat to hear l’Arpeggiata live, and they did not disappoint with a lunchtime Prom of toe-tapping Baroque music enhanced by sensuous and energetic dancing. Review

August

Jennifer Pike (violin), Igor Levitt (piano) & Nicolas Alstaedt (cello), Cadogan Hall (Chamber Prom 4). Two duo sonatas and a trio in music by Debussy and Ravel. Exquisitely executed and presented. Review

September

Platinum Consort, King’s Place. I have been following Platinum Consort, a young choral octet, with interest after interviewing their director/founder, Scott Inglis-Kidger, and their composer-in-residence, Richard Bates, for my Meet the Artist series. At their King’s Place debut Platinum gave a faultless and highly absorbing performance of music by Renaissance and Baroque composers, new works by Richard Bates, and James MacMillan’s monumental Miserere. Review

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Cadogan Hall (Chamber Prom 8). Aimard impressed me in his first Liszt Project concert at QEH last winter – his intellect, his technical facility, his total immersion in the music – and he did not disappoint in a lunchtime recital of Book 2 of Debussy’s Preludes. Review

October

Noriko Ogawa, Wigmore Hall. Another lunchtime at the Wigmore and a pianist I have long wanted to hear live. Noriko opened her concert with Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II, a piece I am working on myself for my LTCL programme. It was so arresting, so perfectly presented that I could have happily listened to endless repeats of the work. But Debussy’s Études were wonderful too, Noriko bringing a great range of colours and moods to the music. Review

Peter Donohoe, Sutton House. Peter opened Sutton House Music Society’s 2012-13 season with a programme called ‘Opus 1’, which allowed him to present works by Tchaikovsky and Schumann alongside pieces by Prokofiev, Bartok and Berg. Great to hear Peter again, at a delightful and intimate small venue Review

Benjamin Grosvenor, QEH. Grosvenor’s Southbank debut came hot on the heels of a host of awards, and, unsurprisingly, the venue was packed. I admit I have been avoiding Grosvenor, as the tag “prodigy” always worries me, so I heard him with a mixture of curiosity and repulsion. There were some fine moments in the concert, but I never really felt he caught fire and I feel he needs to mature as a performing artist. I hope that such significant early success does not lead to burn out and obscurity as Grosvenor grows up (it would be nice to think his career trajectory is akin to Kissin’s: we shall see…..). Review

November

Elena Riu, Sutton House. Another enjoyable trip to Hackney for ‘Inventions’, a fascinating juxtaposition of Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions with inventions by contemporary composers, including Finch, Ligeti, Gulbaidulina and Lutoslawski. Review

Elena’s Meet the Artist interview

Metier Ensemble, The Forge. My first visit to this great little venue in Camden, which successfully combines an arts venue with a bar and restaurant in a purpose-built imaginatively designed space. Metier are a piano, flute and cello trio, and the programme of their ‘Keys and Coffee’ concert was perfect for a Sunday morning. Review

Meet the Artist: Elspeth Wyllie (pianist with Metier Ensemble)

Other musical highlights during this year include

Left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy’s graduation recital at the Royal College of Music, in which McCarthy demonstrated that one hand playing can be as beautiful and subtle, powerful and dramatic as two; it was a great privilege to be invited to Nick’s recital. Review

My students’ concert at Normansfield Theatre, Teddington in May was a wonderful shared celebration of music-making and a tribute to all the hard work my students put in during the year.

Late Schubert piano music in Surrey, performed by an acknowledged Schubert expert, including the Moments Musicaux, Klavierstücke, and both sets of Impromptus. Review

Concert highlights to look forward to in 2013:

Leon McCawley, Wigmore Hall

Mitsuko Uchida, RFH

Quartet for the End of Time, QEH (with the Capuçon brothers)

Piotr Anderszewski, QEH

Steven Osborne/Messiaen – Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus, QEH

Since January 2012, I’ve also been reviewing exhibitions for Bachtrack’s sister site, One Stop Arts. You can find all my art reviews here

My first podcast is a contribution to a longer piece by Bachtrack.com on Piano Today. It features a fascinating interview with Piotr Anderszewski, one of the most insightful, intellectual and profound pianists working today, a round up of forthcoming piano recitals around the world, and my thoughts on the sometimes tricky art of reviewing piano concerts. Hear the full broadcast here:

As some of my readers already know, I write regular music reviews for international concert and opera listings site, Bachtrack.com. A new sister site, OneStopArts, has just gone live, specialising in listings for theatre, music, exhibitions, comedy and lectures in London. Do visit the site to find out more.

My latest reviews for OneStopArts are here

Who was the busiest conductor in 2011? Who was the most performer composer? How is opera faring, despite the high price of tickets? What were the most performed works in 2011? Find out the answers to these questions – and lots more – on Bachtrack’s Concert and Opera League Tables

As English as Earl Grey tea, wasps at a picnic, warm beer, wet summers, Rupert Brooke, and Andy Murray not getting past the semis at Wimbledon, the Last Night of the Proms is a fine tradition and a much-loved national treasure.

Music snobs and cynics may criticise the Last Night (and indeed other programmes in the Proms season) for “dumbing down” classical music. Others may regard all the flag-waving and singing of Rule Britannia! as rampant jingoism verging on unpleasant nationalism – and if the Prommers were skinheads and card-carrying BNP members, maybe that would be true. But in fact, watching the Last Night on television on Saturday night, the overriding sense is of a wonderful shared experience and a real celebration of music and music making. And not all the flags were Union Jacks, not by any means…..

Photo credit: BBC

The Proms has grown, from its relatively humble origins at the Queen’s Hall in London at the end of the nineteenth century, to an internationally renowned music festival. When the Proms were first conceived, the motivation was to bring classical music to a wider public and to encourage those who might not normally go to classical music concerts to attend. This is still the Proms’ USP, and something it is clearly doing right, given the record attendance figures this year. Latterly, the Proms has become more populist: this year we’ve had a Horrible Histories Prom, a Comedy Prom and a Spaghetti Western Prom, but alongside these more popular programmes we’ve also had many premiers of new works, fine orchestras and soloists from all around the world, and night after night of fantastic music.  I have been to four Proms, reviewing for Bachtrack, and have enjoyed every single one of them. After the stuffy, hidebound, reverential atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall, with its (mostly) snooty, superannuated audience, the Royal Albert Hall is a breath of fresh air. At each Prom I attended, there was a wonderful sense of people coming together to enjoy and celebrate music.

It’s hard to get a ticket to the Last Night: like Wimbledon, tickets are allocated by ballot and you have to submit your request months in advance. Thus, the sense of occasion is even greater, if you are one of the lucky ones to be there. Even if you are not, the tv and radio coverage is so good these days that you can join in the festivities from your living room, as I did last night. Or attend a Prom in the Park, a relatively new innovation which aims to bring music to an even wider audience.

The programme started seriously enough with a new work by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, followed by some lively, spiky Bartok, before the first Main Event of the evening, Susan Bullock singing Brunhilde’s self-immolation scene from Wagner’s Ring cycle. I can live without Wagner, though certain friends insist that I can’t, and while I admired Susan Bullock’s performance – and her striking scarlet dress – I found the extreme vibrato in her voice obscured the music. She’s clearly a popular performer, and interviewed afterwards by Katie Derham, she admitted that the atmosphere in the hall was remarkable.

Next up was Chinese posterboy rockstar pianist Lang Lang. He’d dashed from the Prom in the Park across the road in Hyde Park, where he’d played the most ridiculously flashy account of Liszt’s ‘La Campanella’ I have ever heard, to perform more Liszt, the First Piano Concerto, in the main hall. I admit I have very little patience with performers like Lang Lang. Sure, he’s a fine technician, but there’s no real substance nor depth to his playing – and this was more than evident in the Liszt Concerto, which he reduced to another display of unnecessary piano pyrotechnics. Added to that, his gurning and grinning, his affected gestures, and his Liberace-like smiles at the camera…. He’s a big crowd-pleaser and received rousing and sustained applause. He returned after the interval to wreck Chopin’s ‘Grande Polonaise Brillante’, more schmaltz and sugar plums, before offering the most sycophantic, sentimental Liszt (the ‘Consolation’ No. 3) as an encore.

Next, Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’, a welcome relief after Lang Lang’s extreme attention-seeking, with Jenny Agutter reading a rather toe-curling new version of the text written by poet Wendy Cope. The rest of the programme is, traditionally, devoted to the massed singalong, beginning this year with ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ (from The Sound of Music) and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, Susan Bullock returning to the stage in a vivid electric blue gown, to lead the singing. Then it was Elgar, twice, the audience urged by conductor Edward Gardner (the youngest conductor to conduct at the Last Night) to sing up and drown the piccolo. And finally, Rule Britannia!, sung by Susan Bullock, wearing a hilarious parody of Britannia’s costume, complete with flashing daffodils on her breastplate, and Jerusalem. All good wholesome fun, and entirely uplifting.

So, the Proms is over for another year, yet predictions are already being made about next year’s programme. I’ve heard rumours that Barenboim will conduct all nine of Beethoven’s Symphonies, and, being the Olympic year, the 2012 season is likely to be really special. I’m looking forward to it already!

Meanwhile, the autumn season at the Wigmore Hall has just begun, and I have a full diary of concerts to look forward to, beginning tomorrow lunchtime with young French ‘piano babe’ Lise de la Salle. Other highlights include Robert Levin playing Mozart with the OAE, Garrick Ohlsson, Louis Lortie, Peter Donohoe and Mitsuko Uchida. You can find links to all my reviews for Bachtrack on this blog, as well as plenty of other piano-musings. And don’t forget to check out Bachtrack’s listings for concerts, opera and ballet around the world (click on the graphic on the left).

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brooke (spot the quote which inspired this post!!)