The crescendo to the final of the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition has been abuzz with activity, commentary and interviews, concerts and masterclasses, and has created a wonderful sense of a shared celebration of all things piano. Many of these activities are the initiative of the new Artistic Directors of the Leeds competition (Adam Gatehouse and Paul Lewis) in a bid to give the competition a wider reach beyond the confines of the concert hall, and even experiencing them at arm’s length, via social media and the broadcasts on MediciTV, I’ve sensed the excitement surrounding the revamped Leeds competition. The addition of a chamber music element to the competition is a very welcome one too, in my opinion, and I agree fully with Adam Gatehouse’s assertion that if one is able to play, connect and communicate with other musicians in a chamber music setting, one is also able to connect and communicate with an orchestra – as the finalists must do in their concerto performances.

MediciTV’s live stream of all the performances has brought an immediacy to those of us who didn’t make it to Leeds in person – the broadcasts are no longer consigned to a discreet evening slot on BBCFour – and also makes the competition feel truly international: anyone can tune in from around the world.

Performances by Aljoša Jurinić (Croatia, aged 29), Anna Geniushene (Russia, aged 27) and Mario Häring (Germany, aged 28) comprised the first evening’s finals concert, and here I offer my brief thoughts (from notes made while watching the live stream broadcast) on the three competitors:

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Aljoša Jurinić

Aljoša Jurinić – Mozart Piano Concerto in C minor, K491

It’s really cheering to see a Mozart concerto in a piano competition final. And this year there are, unusually, no concertos by Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky. A shot of Aljoša Jurinić backstage, chatting to conductor Edward Gardner, showed a young man who looked incredibly chilled and relaxed ahead of one of the most significant performances of his career. This easefulness was translated into his playing which was natural and poised. The first movement had a lovely clarity of articulation and shading, with a good sense of synergy between soloist and orchestra. Jurinić seemed sensitive to the drama and muscularity of this opening movement, creating a sense of spontaneity and improvisation, particularly in the cadenza. The second movement was elegant and good-natured, but the finale felt a little too polite/safe for me. Given that this concerto was completed just before the premiere of The Marriage of Figaro, I felt more operatic drama was needed. But overall, this was a very mature, confident and engaging performance.

Anna Geniushene – Prokofiev Piano Concerto No.3 in C major, Op.26 

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Anna Geniushene

This for me was a really fine performance – assured, confident, with soul and personality, and a wonderful sense of freedom. My husband, who was half watching in between following la Vuelta (tour of Spain cycling race on his laptop), remarked, without any prompting from me, that he playing was “singing and colourful”. I last heard this concerto performed by Martha Argerich at the Festival Hall in 2016, and I felt Anna brought some of the same excitement, colour and spontaneity to the work, as well as a clear sense of ownership. Her communication with conductor and orchestra was excellent, and the passages where the piano part seems to take flight into its own world were very convincing.

Noriko Ogawa deemed it “a dream concerto!” after the performance – and I agree with her: it was!

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Mario Häring

Mario Häring – Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15

A warm, generous and joyous performance by Mario Häring, with excellent communication with conductor and orchestra. I felt the conductor in particular was really enjoying this work and the pleasure came through, with Mario responding equally in a performance that was lively, precise, colourful and engaging with great clarity and musical sense.

Tonight’s concert features performances by the other two finalists, Eric Lu and Xinyuan Wang.

Follow the Leeds Competition on MediciTV and on Twitter via #LeedsPiano2018


More on the Leeds on this blog:

Leeds preview – in conversation with Jon Jacob

Podcast with Adam Gatehouse

For this concert, I exchanged the deep red plush seats of London’s Wigmore Hall for my first visit to Plush Festival, held in the tiny village of Plush, deep in Thomas Hardy country in Dorset. Here in 1995, far from the madding crowd, Adrian Brendel established the festival in a spirit of collaboration and shared music-making. A deconsecrated church, which sits in the arcadian grounds of Plush Manor (bought by the Brendel family in the early 1990s as a bucolic retreat) is the venue for the concerts. Its generous acoustic and small size make it perfect for intimate chamber music and solo recitals; in addition, visitors may sit in on open rehearsals.

I’d known about the village of Plush (the pub, the Brace of Pheasants does a good Sunday lunch) and the Brendel connection for years, but this was my first visit to the Festival – part of my determination to seek out quality classical music in Dorset, my new home since I moved from London in May.

The drive to Plush suggests one is entering a special place. Leaving Dorchester (Hardy’s “Casterbridge”), I left the A-road and passed through the villages of Piddletrenthide and Piddlehinton (“Longpuddle”). Then a sharp right turn and up a steep hill and there was a sign to Plush Festival, guiding the way. The village is chocolate-box-pretty, with the pub at its heart. The signs to the festival pointed beyond the centre of the village and a winding, tree-lined lane takes you into the grounds of Plush Manor. A helpful gentleman guided me to park my car in an adjacent field and asked if I’d been to Plush before.

Outside the church, small groups of people lolled in foldout camping chairs or lounged on picnics rugs. Some were even enjoying a picnic ahead of the concert. A small bar offered wine, prosecco and soft drinks, and there was a bunting-draped stall next door selling CDs. The murmur of conversation was accompanied by birdsong. A friend texted (before my mobile reception disappeared) to say he was at Glyndebourne for the afternoon, and I thought there was a touch of the Glyndebourne experience, in microcosm, at Plush – though minus the dinner jackets: people were dressed casually. After all, this was a lunchtime on a sunny Saturday in August…..

10567-b5caaf2a50ce50da7f81d22244175770The soloist for this concert was Filippo Gorini, a prize-winning young Italian pianist. His programme was unexpected for a weekend lunchtime recital – Schumann’s Geistervariationen (“Ghost” Variations) and Beethoven’s mighty Hammerklavier Sonata – but Kat Brendel, Festival Director, told me afterwards that this was “the programme he wanted to play”. It proved a bold and successful choice.

Schumann composed his Ghost Variations in 1854, shortly before he was committed to a mental asylum. It was his final piece, dedicated to his beloved Clara, and the work is freighted with melancholy and tenderness. Filippo Gorini caught the tragic intensity and intimate poignancy of the work. Understated, elegant and restrained, one felt Gorini fully appreciated that Schumann is a composer who wears his heart on his sleeve; the final variation ended on a whisper, with Gorini allowing the sound to fade into the stillness of the church.

Beethoven, by contrast, is at his most declamatory in the Hammerklavier Sonata, which opens with a daring leap across the keyboard and a rollicking fanfare motif. This was masterfully shaped by Gorini who brought energy and vivid colour to the music. At its heart is the Adagio, a huge slow movement of infinite serenity and profundity which in Gorini’s hands felt like a stand-alone piece of music. Time was suspended, and while a butterfly fluttered, agitato, around the church, nothing could break Gorini’s concentration – nor the audience’s (who were as committed as any Wigmore audience). This movement, played with an intense concentration which echoed Gorini’s sensitive approach to the Schumann, has an almost Schubertian harmonic trajectory and introspection, with the improvisatory qualities of a Chopin Nocturne. Out of this other-worldly space came a finale of restless physicality.

Chatting afterwards, I mentioned to one audience member that I felt Gorini had the ability to make one forget a pianist was actually present during the performance. It’s a rare talent, and his lack of ego or unnecessary gesture undoubtedly contributed to this impressive performance.

If you think great music is only to be found in the metropolis, think again: Sir Andras Schiff returns to Plush Festival tomorrow for a sold out concert, and past seasons have enjoyed performances by Paul Lewis and Till Fellner.


This years Plush Festival continues from 14-16 September. Full details here

 

 

 

Header image: courtesy of Plush Manor

 

 

03HOUGH1_SPAN-jumbo-v2What can I write about Stephen Hough’s startling, stunning concert at the Festival Hall last night?

During the second half, between the miniatures by Debussy and Beethoven’s elemental Appassionata Sonata (Op 57), I leaned across to my concert companion and muttered that this concert seemed to be all about spontaneity and improvisation, the short works by Debussy which opened both halves of the concert, in themselves, and in Hough’s skillful hands, improvisatory in character, revealing the same qualities in the works by Schumann and Beethoven. One had the sense of meticulous preparation – and Stephen has talked before in interviews and articles about practising of the need to be “a perfectionist in the practise room” so that one can be “a bohemian” on stage – which enabled him to step back from the music and set it free.

It was an unusual programme. Other pianists may not have been able to pull it off so convincingly, and certainly opening with Debussy’s much-loved Claire de Lune from the Suite Bergamasque was potentially risky. The piece is so well-known, so prone to clichéd readings – yet Hough’s sensitive, unfussy shaping of this work saved it from saccharine sentimentality, and the delicacy of his sound and touch encouraged concentrated listening while also creating a wonderful sense of intimacy in the vastness of the RFH. It was as if we were in Debussy’s drawing room, gathered around his upright piano. And as Stephen said in the pre-concert talk, in the moments of the concert, we can “all be friends”, forgetting our differences of opinion or politics, joined in the shared pleasure of music.

In the programme notes, Stephen Hough explained that his choice of repertoire highlighted the very different approaches the three composers took to writing for the piano. While Debussy’s works (Clair de Lune, the two books of Images and the Prelude La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune) are “sensual paintings with mystical suggestions” [SH] (and even without the titles, their distinctive soundworld immediately conjures up potent, perfumed images in the listener’s mind), the two works by German composers are abstract and tightly structured with clear musical architecture.

And so while Debussy was light (feathery, but never fluffy) and delicately hued, the textures of Schumann’s Fantasie in C seemed all the richer in comparison, the composer’s passion for Clara all there in every note and phrase (Schumann often wears his heart on his sleeve), balanced by lyricism and tenderness, particularly in the glorious closing movement which seemed to evolve and expand there and then.

Similarly, the Beethoven felt wrought before our very eyes and ears, the opening measures creeping out of the mysterious darkness of the lower registers into something resembling light, if only briefly, the work fantasy-like in its range of ideas and striking contrasts. The outer movements were fraught with emotion, urgent and agitated, the middle movement providing a calm respite before the finale was unleashed upon us with, its feverish intensity all the more terrifying for the restrained tempo: this was music on the edge of chaos.

Stephen returned to Schumann for the first encore, one of the Symphonic Etudes which was rejected by the composer – a brief few moments of meltingly beautiful filigree traceries. And a Chopin nocturne to close this exceptional evening.

 

 

evgenykissin_wide-9aa53798ae987906571102878d8a12936652197c-s900-c85You know you’re at a special concert when the social areas around the concert hall, the bars and cafés, are abuzz with a very tangible sense of excitement? “When did you last hear him?”  “I hear he is magnificent….. ” Add to that an audience populated by “important people” of the music world, including pianist Menahem Pressler (now in his 90’s and still playing) – it promised to be an exceptional evening.

It’s over 20 years since I last saw Evgeny Kissin live. That concert, the first solo piano recital in the history of the Proms, was legendary for all sorts of reasons – coruscating performances of works by Haydn, Liszt and Chopin and no less than seven encores to a record-breaking audience (over 6000). In the course of his career, he has been criticized by some for his rather cool manner, smooth perfectionism, and style over substance, but there’s never been any doubt about his consistent dedication to his art and artistry. Listen to his recording of Chopin’s Berceuse and you hear refinement in every opalescent note and multi-hued filigree passage: Kissin has musical intellect and, more importantly, he has soul.

No longer the shock-haired wunderkind, he is now a mature artist in his mid-40s; he has written a slim volume of thoughtful memoirs and has married his childhood sweetheart. He’s still got the phenomenal technique, but his stage presence is noticeably more relaxed (much smiling during his curtain calls). Yet his style and demeanour hark back to an earlier era, including the way he dresses (evening suit, black tie, even a cummerbund – a rarity at concerts these days): I think audiences really love this – despite attempts by other artists to break down the “us and them” barriers of the concert stage – because it reminds us of the huge sense of occasion a concert by a pianist of this calibre creates and preserves the mystique of the virtuoso performer.

In the programme notes, Kissin was described as a “titan among pianists”, suggesting both physical and metaphoric presence. In an article last year, The Economist billed him as “one of the world’s greatest living musicians”. Both statements are of course subjective – while also being true. He is “great”, in the sense of possessing an ineffable multi-faceted talent which makes the reviewer’s job so hard – for how can one truly describe what he does?

In keeping with his “old school” stage demeanor, he does not indulge in showy piano pyrotechnics nor flashy gesture for the sake of gesture. His mannerisms may be restrained but his playing is full of commitment and a passion which transcends romanticism: it burns with a hypnotic intensity.

Beethoven’s mightly Hammerklavier is one of the high Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, never undertaken lightly. In interviews Kissin has stated that he felt a certain maturity – which he now has – was necessary to tackle this monumental work (other, younger pianists are not so modest…..). It certainly gave full rein to Kissin’s magisterial powers, not just his technique but his musical intelligence too. He made the infamously difficult opening of the Hammerklavier – a rapid leap of an octave and a half taken in the left hand alone – look easy (and indeed the entire programme!) and launched into the first movement with a heroic commitment wrought in myriad sound. This work is so pianistic, its nickname a constant reminder that it must be played on a piano (and Beethoven was alert to rapid developments in piano design at the start of the nineteenth century: he knew a new instrument could produce the effects he demands in his score), yet also rich in orchestral textures and voicings, all revealed so clearly, so musically by Kissin. His pianistic attack may be direct, but his fortissimos never compromise on quality of sound, and his edges are smoothly honed. But above all of this, it was his pacing and natural rubato which captivated: a clear through-narrative combined with interpretative spontaneity gave this large-scale sonata a fantasy-like character, yet with a rigorous sense of the work’s overall architecture – even in the Adagio Sostentuto, where time was suspended for a movement played with an intense almost Schubertian harmonic trajectory and introspection, yet managed with all the improvisatory qualities of a Chopin Nocturne. Out of this other-worldly space came a finale of restless physicality and strikingly dramatic contrasts.

The second half was all Rachmaninov Preludes, a selection from Opp 23 and Op 32, works with which Kissin is fully at ease. As in the Beethoven structures were fully understood, while sound was sculpted, grand gestures deftly chiseled, delicate motifs etched in filigree touch and a gentle haze of sound. We felt the composer’s emotional depth, his yearning and nostalgia, without a hint of false sentiment or surface artifice.

Four encores afforded more pianistic marvels – a crepuscular, haunting étude by Scriabin (Op 2, No. 1), Kissin’s own vertiginously virtuosic Toccata (proof that he could have been an excellent boogie woogie pianist as well!), another favourite Rachmaninov Prelude (in C minor), played with as much energy as if he was beginning the concert, and Tchaikovsky’s Méditation. He probably would have played more, such was his eagerness to return to the piano at each curtain call, but regretfully many of us had last trains to catch.


(photo: FBroede/IMG Artists)

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When the concert is perfect, does that make the reviewer redundant?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I enjoy writing about the concerts I attend but I also struggle with the purpose and value of concert reviews. At the most fundamental level, a review is a record of the event, setting it in context and as a moment in history. A review should also offer readers a flavour of the event and the thoughts and opinion of the reviewer about that event. When I left Milton Court last night I told my concert companion I could not write about the concert we’d just attended because it was so perfect that to write about it could not possibly do justice to the quality of the performance…..

Last night I attended American pianist Jeremy Denk’s concert at Milton Court, one of London’s newest concert venues and, in my opinion, the finest for piano music because of the clarity of its acoustic. Add a pianist whose musical insight and intellectual clarity, magical touch and sense of pacing bring the music to life so that you want to hear him “no matter what he performs” (NY Times), and we have the makings for an evening of exceptionally fine pianism.

It was a typically piquant programme, changed from the published version to include just three works – two magisterial, transcendent late sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert and Prokofiev’s Vision Fugitives, twenty fleeting miniatures, by turns quirky, ethereal, rambunctious, grotesque, poetic, delicate, fragmentary….. Denk revealed their individual characters so carefully, so delightfully that each tiny gem felt like a stand alone piece in its own right.

Beethoven’s piano sonata in E, op 109, the first of his triptych of last sonatas, also opens with a fragment – a tiny arabesque of just two notes in the right hand to which the left hand replies with a similar figure. It’s not a melody, yet that opening is immediately memorable. In Denk’s hands the music unfolded before us, its narrative flow so naturally paced. A muscular middle movement which dissolved into a theme and six variations, surely some of the most transcendent Beethoven ever wrote and handled with a delicacy and robustness, when required, by Denk which pulled one into this otherwordly soundworld so completely that one was transported, fully engaged and utterly overwhelmed. It was akin to meditating.

It felt almost wrong to leave the auditorium for the interval and face the noisy crush around the bar, but we knew the second half would take us to another special place, the unique world of late Schubert, his final sonata completed just a few months before his death.

Is the Sonata in B flat, D960 Schubert’s “final word”? A valediction for his departure from this world? I’ve always been suspicious of this view of this great sonata, whose expansive opening movement is like a great river charting is final course before the ocean, and whose finale is a joyful outpouring of hope, a reminder perhaps that Schubert had more, much more to say, had he lived longer. This was certainly Denk’s take on Schubert’s last sonata. The opening movement’s first theme had the serenity of a hymn, the second theme more unsettled, but the overall sense of repose remained, occasionally interrupted by dark, but never ominous, rumbling bass trills.

The meditative quality of the Beethoven variations was felt again in the slow movement of the D960. In some pianist’s hands, this movement can sound funereal, but Denk gave it a mystical grace and a sense of forward movement, so that the warmth of the A major middle section when it came infused rather than surprised the ear. The Scherzo poured forth with the agile freshness of a sparkling mountain stream, but the Trio reminded us that melancholy is never fair away in Schubert’s world, the bass accents (too often overlooked in other performances/recordings) here perfectly highlighting the change of mood….

The finale opens with a bare G, potentially as cold as the opening of the first Impromptu, but a dancing sprightly rondo quickly ensures, rising to a joyous conclusion, all masterfully and imaginatively presented by Denk. The overall pacing of this Sonata, like the Beethoven, was so elegantly managed: it is a long work (around 40 minutes) yet Denk’s clear sense of a through narrative and overall architecture of the music ensured there were no longueurs, not a moment when the mind wandered to other realms.

The encore was Brahms’ ever popular Intermezzo in A, from the Op 118. Tender and poignant, it was a lovely conclusion to an exceptionally fine evening of pianism.

when I have felt in the moment of the performance I have brought the notes on the page to life in a weird way which is outside of me – that is the kind of success that I am after

– Jeremy Denk (interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist)


Meet the Artist – Jeremy Denk

Guest review by Magdalena Marszalek

 Grigory Sokolov – Meesterpianisten series recital, The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam 7th May 2017

Programme

  • Mozart – Sonata in C, KV 545
  • Mozart – Fantasie in c, KV 475
  • Mozart – Sonata in c, KV 457
  • Beethoven – Sonata no.. 27 in e, op. 90
  • Beethoven – Sonata n0. 32 in c, op. 111
  • Schubert – Moment Musical in C, D 780, No. 1 (encore)
  • Chopin – Nocturne in B (from ‘Deux Nocturnes’, op. 32) (encore)
  • Chopin – Nocturne in As (uit ‘Deux Nocturnes’, op. 32) (encore)
  • Rameau – 4e Concert : No. 2 L’Indiscrète (from ‘Pièces de clavecin en concert’) (encore)
  • R. Schumann – Arabeske in C, op. 18 (encore)
  • Chopin – Prelude in c (from ’24 Preludes’, op. 28) (encore)

There is no need to introduce Grigory Sokolov to anyone interested in the piano world today. He is an implicit giant, who does not seek nor need advertising, unnecessary media attention, flash-bulbs and buzz. He is above all that, yet so powerful in his modesty. His performances do not contain obvious technical fireworks. If you like this kind of showing off, there are other names you should look to. His performance will affect you first from the inside, starting slowly, almost shyly – and then it will swallow you and possess you whole.

Sunday 7th May 2017 was Sokolov’s 19th recital in a row (!) in the famous Meesterpianisten series in Amsterdam, which this year celebrates its 30th annivcersary. He chose to present two piano sonatas by Mozart (C major K 545 and C minor K457 with the Fantasy K. 475) and two sonatas by Beethoven (E minor op. 90 and C minor op.111). The first sonata, known as the “easy one” (Sonata Facile), may be a surprising opening piece. Heard so (too) many times, performed by all manner of child prodigies, only when under the fingers of a mature pianist does it bloom to its fullest. Still, I would consider it as a warm up before the Fantasy, where Sokolov visited every dark corner there was and brought to light every nuance of this piece. Cruising between the different moods, emotions and styles of this work, he immersed the audience in his mystical world. His natural transition to the sonata invoked the feeling of some unspoken deep, dramatic questions. Yet, his interpretation was not overly dramatic, which left the listeners even more emotionally disturbed and intrigued. It made me realized how this classical piece, decorated with almost baroque fugue elements, shyly and unintentionally hints towards a new era. Nevertheless, the genius of Mozart transcended his own time, just as the genius of Sokolov eclipses other performances.

After the first standing ovation and a break, the pianist came back to present the two sonatas by Beethoven, op. 90 and op. 111. My overall impression of the tone and colour was that the Steinway concert piano sounded much better in this repertoire. Multi-dimensional, Beethoven’s voice sounded much broader and bloodier than the rather flat and crystalline Mozart. Sokolov played the sonata E minor in a more contemplative way than I knew it and throughout his performance I realized that slowing down the tempo, even a little bit, might lead to great discoveries. Again, this sonata – like the Sonata Facile which opened the concert – was more like a prelude for the op. 111. A beautiful second movement resembled a ray of sun before the serious C minor piece commenced. Sokolov played the first movement of op. 111 so meditatively that the audience grew a little uneasy, guilty about barging into such a deep and intimate conversation he was having with a piano. But it was so compelling you simply want to be a part of it… I was curious how Maestro Sokolov would interpret the “rag-time”/syncopated elements of this sonata and I really liked the elegant, understated way in which he handled these rhythms with a little swing in a more playful way.

One can only guess at the maestro’s intention in building such a programme, but for me it was a beautiful journey, using the definition of a classical sonata as its point of departure. Sokolov presented the evolution of the form beautifully, and he chose pieces where the composers, even though firmly grounded in the aesthetics of their respective times, were already emotionally climbing on their tiptoes to see and feel what the future could bring. As a performer, he cleverly highlighted these musical fast-forwards and truly let the music shine. And by doing this he actually could not confirm any more strongly the impact that his personality exerts on the music. He shows so much respect to the music that when he touches the keys he gives the impression that he has disappeared and the only thing that is left in the hall is a beautiful, omnipresent sound. And yet this is not true – because he is everywhere, in every soul who is privileged to sit in the room with him.

The Concertgebouw audience cherishes and almost worships Maestro Sokolov, so a great set of encores was obviously going to follow a thundering standing ovation. He started with Schubert’s Moment Musical no. 1 in C major, and then went on to play two Nocturnes op. 32 by Chopin. He played them last year in the Concertgebouw, and I was not the only one with tears in my eyes, especially after the first Nocturne. That was the most emotional moment of the evening and it unlocked a new, deeper level of emotions in many listeners. He then played L’Indiscrete by Jean-Philippe Rameau and Schumann’s Arabeske in C major op. 18, which I also remember from last year. Again, a lesson should be learned that it does not necessarily pay to show off with tempo, even with a relatively easy piece like this, because one can overlook small pearls and diamonds in this charming work. The final encore was the Prelude op. 28 no. 20 (“Funeral march”) and it is impossible to describe what he did with this short piece! Sokolov turned that prelude into a musical haiku, and through masterful use of dynamics he evoked the weight of death with just the faintest shade of hope. No one else is capable of doing that.

Magdalena Marszalek

Amsterdam 8th May 2017
Magdalena Marszalek is an amateur pianist. She taught herself how to play and read music when she was 5 and then graduated to a primary music school in Poland. She did not pursue a professional career in music and went on to become a scientist (PhD in chemistry), however, piano music has accompanied her and inspired her all along. Currently residing in Amsterdam, when not working on new types of solar cells, she spends many hours at the piano practising and playing for pleasure – mostly Chopin, because he was a Polish emigrant, too. Very often she hops on her bike and in 10 minutes she is in the Concertgebouw, enjoying stellar performances by the finest musicians in the world. Realizing how lucky she is, she wants to share her passion for piano music with everybody. 

Magdalena’s piano story on instagram: @princess_mags_piano