“I like to compare my process of making art to the composing of music.”

Gerhard Richter

Composer Jim Aitchison draws inspiration from his personal interactions and relationships with some of the leading twentieth-century and contemporary artists in the UK and beyond, including John Hoyland, Richard Long, Antony Gormley, and Sir Terry Frost. In 2008/9 he was commissioned by Tate Modern, Henry Tillman and Jill Bradford and the PRSF Foundation for New Music to respond in music to the gallery’s Mark Rothko exhibition, the largest Rothko show for 30 years. His response was performed in the gallery amongst the paintings with horn player Michael Thompson, counter-tenor Nicholas Clapton and the Kreutzer Quartet.

Jim Aitchison’s latest project is his personal musical response to the paintings of German artist Gerhard Richter and traverses aspects of Richter’s work such as chance, sequence , distance and memory to create a unique concert experience. Aitchison’s Portraits for a Study explores real geographical distance, for the work will be performed on four pianos simultaneously at four different venues, using Yamaha’s Disklavier technology. The “live” performance, and the trigger for the other simultaneous performances, will take place at the University of Falmouth, where pianist Roderick Chadwick will play the “parent” instrument. The other three pianos – at the Royal Academy of Music, Goldsmiths College and Yamaha Music, London – will be played remotely via broadband data transfer, and the exact nuances of Chadwick’s performance will be created in real time. Pictures from the Tate’s 2012 Gerhard Richter show will be projected during the performance.

Richter’s practice of passing the same images through a variety of processes or filters is also explored in Aitchison’s work: he has recomposed the same music for string quartet. It will be performed by the Kreutzer Quartet at the RAM and transmitted to all the other venues by audio link.

This fascinating blending of music, art and technology takes place on 22nd February 2014. I asked Jim about his influences and inspirations, his particular compositional methods, and how he translates his responses to a particular art work or works into music.

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

From being relatively unaware as a child, the world of music crashed into my dim 11-year-old awareness in the form of Arthur Rubinstein’s coruscating RCA Appassionata recording, followed a little later by the televising of Vladimir Horowitz’s final London concert in 1982. I had never encountered eloquent intensity of this magnitude. In hindsight one might question aspects of the magnificent fading drama of Horowitz at this stage of his career, but the experience was electrifying and ushered in many years of preoccupation with 19th and early 20th-century pianism. I began composing at around this time with various futile attempts to emulate the major exponents of this, and it took a long time and significant effort to escape from thinking solely in terms of piano sonority, texture and timbre. In terms of becoming a ‘real’ composer (if I ever have done so) this emerged extremely slowly, and I consider myself very much as a late developer.

Who or what have been the most important influences (including non-musical influences) on your composing? 

Regarding sources of musical influence, these might appear conventional: largely Euro-centric art music, with a particular interest in the aura of the 19th century, but very much thinking of this in terms of how to engage with it now, and what such music might mean as experienced in the present with all of the complexities, problems and paradoxes therein, neither trying to create some kind of illusory, sanitised re-formulation of the past for the purposes of hiding from the present, or an amnesia-based rejection in order to repel the influence of the past.

This sense of ‘present’ in terms of a place to think about the past, and the here and now, manifested itself in around 2001, when I discovered a hitherto unrealised link in myself between the visual and the sounded, embodied specifically in using aspects of visual artworks to create music. Bringing my musical material into engagement with the gallery space and with some of the procedures and approaches used by contemporary artists has been a transformative experience for me as a composer.

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

To date, I think encountering the work of Gerhard Richter and attempting to respond to it in music has perhaps been the most challenging and rewarding for me.

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

It is almost impossible to answer this complex question, without the danger of propagating potentially meaningless and deceptive platitudes, as there are so many variables within any one person’s path and what is around them. I can only offer the rather lame suggestion that one should try to be as true as possible to one’s self, but perhaps make sure to ask, continuously throughout life, what those notions of ‘true’ and ‘self’ mean.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? You will have to wait and see!

What is your idea of perfect happiness? An ‘idea’ of happiness is something I try to be very wary of.

What do you enjoy doing most? (when not working) Walking in solitude, followed by good coffee.

What is your present state of mind? Restless

You say that your work is inspired by or in response to particular artwork/s and/or artists. Does a particular artwork/s prompt an immediate musical response in you, or is the process longer, more of a case of “living with” the art?  

Occasionally the response can be quite swift in onset (particularly the case here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vH8zK5W-l7A), but usually it is a long and painful process of building a kind of scaffolding from the visual to the sounded. I particularly value the process of attempting to apply procedures in music that an artist has used in their visual construction, and this can become very involved, almost like learning aspects of a language before being able to say anything useful in it.

What are your intentions when composing with a painting as the subject?  

  • to “explain” musically the painting?  
  • to “extend” the painting? 
  • to make your own personal interpretation, musically? 

I think I would be absolutely horrified if anyone thought that I was attempting either to ‘explain’ or illustrate or even worse, ‘extend’ an artwork. I don’t even like to think of it as a ‘personal interpretation,’ rather, I prefer the idea of a conversation between different art objects, where the original art work might give me a set of starting points from which to create my own piece of music that may take off in its own directions. If there are illuminating links between the art and the music, then so much the better, but I do not see the artwork as a ‘life-support’ machine for my music and I don’t see either as necessary to ‘explain’ the other.

The interpretation of colour introduced into a musical composition – is that present at all?  

I am not synaesthetic, so there is no direct physiological correlation within me that I can draw upon to link colour with some kind of sounding outcome. However, the expressive and structural effects of colour that I encounter do inevitably find their way into the mix somehow. Previously, I have contrived intuitively simple correlative schemes between colours and different harmonies, which I have found very useful.

Portraits for a Study is inspired by the work of Gerhard Richter whose work contains distinct working methods/elements. How have you referenced these aspects in the music, in both the composition and the ways in which the piece will be performed? 

  • CHANCE  
  • UNCERTAINTY  
  • BLURRING  
  • COLOUR CHARTS 
  • SCRAPING OFF 
  • ABSTRACTION 

Are there any particular musical techniques you have employed to achieve these aspects? 

Yes, all of those elements you mention I have used to greater or lesser degrees within the pieces. Of all of them, abstraction in the sense that Richter uses it is rather hard to define here: as I understand it, in many other artists’ approaches to abstraction, what may be considered as a drive to transcend reality coupled with a kind of essentialising process, is in Richter’s hands, more a process founded upon establishing its own reality through the accumulation and erosion of visual material: a surface, not a doorway. In the case of my responses in Portraits for a Study, I decided to largely steer clear of direct engagement with this huge part of his output, though I hope to concentrate on this in a future project.

Chance and uncertainty, limited and mediated through formal procedures, have played an enormous role throughout Portraits for a Study, in a variety of ways. From harvesting and re-assembling tiny fragments of music by Bach and Beethoven according to simple pre-established rules, to creating transcriptions of photo-improvisations, to applying rigid filters to large spans of material, to using strict methods of cutting and re-ordering material, where the outcome of this is uncertain. Uncertainty is also built into the performance configuration itself: there is no way of knowing exactly how much of the data transferred between the remote Disklaviers over the Internet will come through and how this will affect the sounding result, as this is significantly dependant upon many variables.

Blurring, scraping off or erasure, palimpsest, the blow up, mechanical reproduction and copying, multiples and sequences (such as seen in the colour charts), are all filtering strategies that I see as establishing distance, levelling out, relative anonymity, and an aspiration towards the non-subjective intervention of the artist (a goal that I think is perhaps debateable in terms of whether it is always entirely fulfilled). I have sought compositional applications of all of these things: mechanically copying a whole Rondo by Dussek and then in one case blurring it almost beyond recognition through simple musical means, and in another, taking a fragment from the same piece, blowing it up six-fold and then completely erasing it and filling its duration with something else. In another instance, solo string pieces by Bach are buried under layers of musical ‘over-painting,’ some carefully contrived, others more coarsely applied. Multiples and sequences are used throughout the pieces, in the re-patterning of assembled fragments or in more intricately ordered cutting and re-positioning of segments of improvisations. Once again, the performance configuration is intimately invested in this: multiples, sequences and distance are created quite literally with 4 linked Disklavier pianos spread over 300 miles, and then the same material performed and transmitted again, re-composed for string quartet.

Has your investigation of the work of Gerhard Richter, which has significantly demonstrated the value of painting in the 21st century, assisted you in your question “what is the ‘correct ‘ kind of music to write in the early 2lst century”? 

I would say that Richter’s art has enabled me to find some kind of permission to remain entirely uncertain about this, and reassurance that this is OK, even if it still feels uncomfortable, confusing and worrying.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, for example the Kreutzer Quartet and pianist Roderick Chadwick?  

I have been collaborating with the Kreutzer Quartet for nearly 10 years, and it has been an immense privilege to work with colleagues and friends who are true artists. The only real challenges are found in the great distance I live away from them, and to produce work worthy of their skills: I am indebted to their patience in dealing with my inadequacies. This is the first time that I have worked with Roderick and, once again, I am utterly spoiled by being able to collaborate with such an extraordinary musician.

Has working with other musicians’ influenced/changed/stimulated your creative processes?   

Absolutely, not only do I get almost instant feedback and data on critical aspects of the pieces written for them, but also wholly new insights on the music in rehearsal and performance that I hadn’t considered, and I also find early involvement with them often gives me indispensible approaches that I would not have thought of otherwise. This is what happens when you are able to work with musicians who have such breadth and depth in their wider artistic interests.

What are the particular challenges of working in a multimedia format, for example, with the Yamaha Disklavier?  

Firstly, I feel I ought to emphasize that the new music is actually written for solo piano (as well as in a different version for string quartet), not Disklavier, and as such, I hope that pianists may be interested in it in future. But yes, the idea is that the music will be performed on the Disklavier piano in this case, making use of the Disklavier’s ability to be connected to many other Disklaviers across a network. Thus, the sense of distance and automation apparently present in aspects of Richter’s art will be referred to via the configuration of one live pianist at Falmouth University triggering 3 remote Disklaviers 300 miles distant, to play exactly what he plays, and exactly how he performs (the potential for chance data aberrations in transfer notwithstanding), at the Royal Academy of Music, Goldsmiths and Yamaha Music London.

composer Jim Aitchison (photo: Richard Bram)

There are immense technical challenges in doing this and in reversing the polarity, when we will transmit the Kreutzer Quartet performing the re-composed version of the same music back from the Royal Academy of Music to all the other venues via audio-visual link. We have run a whole series of tests between the various institutions and will continue to do so up until the performance on 22nd of February 2014. The main challenges are logistic (co-ordinating a large group of people comprised of several different teams across 4 remote venues and from several other participating organisations, accessing and organising spaces and getting equipment transported and set up over a wide geographical area), and technical (dealing with the idiosyncrasies of a large communication system with many components devised and set up especially for this project).

One of the joys of working like this however is that of building fruitful collaborations, both existing and new. In addition to the wonderful musicians, Arts Council England, The PRS for Music Foundation, Yamaha, Falmouth University, the Royal Academy of Music and Goldsmiths, and with wonderful support from Tate, we have also been incredibly fortunate to find a new collaborator in the Europe-wide Vconect video conferencing research project that includes major partners such as EURESCOM – European Institute for Research and Strategic Studies in Telecommunications, British Telecommunications plc, Portugal Telecom, Alcatel-Lucent Bell, Goldsmiths University, University of London, Stichting Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatica, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der angewandten Forschung, JOANNEUM RESEARCH Forschungsgesellschaft and Falmouth University (http://www.vconect-project.eu/h)

Attend one of the performances:

University of Falmouth

Royal Academy of Music, London

Goldsmith’s College, University of London

Jim Aitchison’s biography

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.

pianist Lucy Parham (© Sven Arnstein)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career? 

Originally, my Mum inspired me to play. She was a keen amateur pianist and there was always music in the house. One of my earliest memories is of her practising for her diplomas and strains of beautiful Chopin and Beethoven sending me off to sleep at night.

I always wanted to be a musician, or, more to the point, I could never have imagined not having music in my life. When I was 18 I was the Piano Winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year and things just progressed gradually from there. I was at the Guildhall but I began to do a lot of professional engagements.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing? 

Since I was a child I had a profound love for the music of Robert Schumann. Looking back, he seems an unlikely candidate for an eight year old but I felt something spoke to me. As if it was a voice I understood. And I still feel that – although who knows whether my instincts are right, of course! It’s not just the piano music – it is his entire output. I only have to hear the opening of the 4th Symphony and I’m off! Brahms has a pretty similar effect on me.

Pianistically, I have always been inspired by Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida. I heard Richard Goode at the Wigmore Hall in June playing the last three Beethoven sonatas. It was a revelatory concert and something I shall always remember.

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

I think everything is a challenge. Performing in itself is the greatest challenge. But all the organising of concerts, learning repertoire, writing scripts, practising, travelling. It all takes it out of you, emotionally.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

My recent performance of Rêverie (with actor Henry Goodman) at the Wigmore Hall was a very happy occasion, as was touring the USA with the Schumann Concerto, conductor Barry Wordsworth and the BBC Concert Orchestra. And last year, playing the Clara Schumann Concerto at the RFH with Jane Glover was rather special evening for me. Generally though, I’m pretty self critical and rarely feel that happy with myself. It’s the same with CDs, I think. All my recordings were the best I could do on that day. I don’t like listening back to them – I think they are snapshots of how you were in a particular moment. You always want to re-record them a year later!

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

London’s Wigmore Hall

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Brahms’ First Piano Concerto is a particular favourite to perform. But I think these things chop and change depending on your mood and what is happening in your life. There are far too many favourites to name. And I have obsessions about Jerome Kern, all Tchaikovsky’s ballet music and about many jazz musicians like Stacey Kent, Jim Tomlinson and Miles Davis. The John Wilson Orchestra is extraordinary. I have been to all their Proms, which are my idea of heaven. John and I have worked together too (with the Philharmonia) and he is a really exceptional musician.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Where to start..?!

Dinu Lipatti, Daniel Barenboim, Richard Goode, Andras Schiff, Bryn Terfel, Yo Yo Ma, Itzak Perlman, Mitsuko Uchida, Sarah Connolly, Paul Lewis, Natalie Clein, Sir Colin Davis. I could go on and on, but…..

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

There are too many to list – but playing the Ravel Concerto in Moscow with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, with a formidable female conductor called Veronica Dudarova, must rank among them! Being on stage with the most extraordinary actors in my words and music evenings makes my feel very lucky, too. Performing “Nocturne” at the Almeida with Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman on the very same stage I had seen them perform “Duet For One” was memorable for me. I learn a lot from them too and it has opened up a whole new world for me.

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

My own highly inspirational teacher was Joan Havill. She was (and is) quite extraordinary in so many ways and I owe so much of what I do now to her original belief in me and her dedication. I try to pass that on to my pupils but whether I succeed with that who knows?!

I feel that humility as a performer, and as a teacher, is crucial. We really are just the servant of the music. Trying to get to the heart of what the composer wanted and not about you as the performer should always come first.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I am learning the Schumann Humoreske Op.20. It has taken me a long time to tackle this piece – and I’m not sure why I never learnt it before. It is a masterpiece and hugely underrated. I am also learning Brahms’ Op.116 which is pure heaven for me.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Perfect happiness is being at peace with yourself and being good and kind to those around you. It would also be owning my own private swimming pool – but sadly that isn’t ever going to happen!

Launched in December 2013, Lucy Parham’s King’s Place Sunday Coffee Concerts (Word/Play) continues throughout 2014. All details can be found here: 

2014 sees the launch of her new Sheaffer Sunday Matinee Series at St John’s Smith Square, featuring all four of her words and music concerts. Actors will be: Henry Goodman, Martin Jarvis, Joanna David, Alex Jennings, Juliet Stevenson, Harriet Walter and Simon Russell Beale. There will be a Q and A session after each performance. The first concert ‘Beloved Clara’ is on Sunday 19th January 2014. Further details can be found here: 

Lucy Parham first came to public attention as the Piano Winner of the 1984 BBC TV Young Musician of the Year. Having made her Royal Festival Hall concerto debut at 16, she has since appeared regularly at all the major concert venues in London and around the UK. Conductors with whom she collaborated include Barry Wordsworth, Sir Charles Groves, Bryden Thompson, Jane Glover, En Shao, Richard Hickox, Antoni Wit, Owain Arwel Hughes, Yoav Talmi, Veronika Dudarova, Martyn Brabbins, Sian Edwards, John Wilson and Jean-Claude Cassadesus. Festival appearances include, in the UK, Brighton, City of London, Perth, Leeds Castle, Rye, Bury St Edmunds, Three Choirs, Newbury, Victor Hugo, Guernsey, Canterbury, Cambridge, Winchester, Harrogate, BBC Proms, Welsh and Scottish Proms, Chelsea, Cardiff, North Norfolk and Oxford, and abroad, Bergen, Istanbul and Mexico City.

Full biography and more on Lucy’s website

www.lucyparham.com 

Harold Craxton

Craxton Studios, a unique house and ‘Atelier’ on Kidderpore Avenue in leafy Hampstead, north London, was designed and built in 1901 by the artist George Hillyard Swinstead for his family and as his art studio. The house was bought by eminent and much-loved pianist and teacher Harold Craxton and his wife Essie in 1945 after they and their family were bombed out of their home in St. John’s Wood during the Blitz. Their six children included the distinguished oboist Janet Craxton; the painter John Craxton R.A. (who illustrated Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books, amongst other things) and the BBC’s Royal events television director Antony Craxton C.V.O. Professor Harold Craxton O.B.E (Royal Academy of Music) lectured, taught and entertained at the house and accompanied some of the finest singers and musicians of the day. The house became a hub for music and the arts, and was frequented by such artistic luminaries as Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Sir Frederick Ashton, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Winifred Atwell, Dame Janet Baker, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Lennox Berkeley, Sir John Betjeman, Pierre Boulez, Julian Bream, Benjamin Britten, Lord Kenneth Clarke, Johnny Dankworth, Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, Alfred Deller, Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Lucien Freud, Leon Goossens, Gerard Hoffnung, Witold Lutoslawski, Gian Carlo Menotti, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Sir Henry Moore, Peter Pears, Mstislav Rostropovich, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Stephen Spender and Graham Sutherland. There are vestiges of these illustrious lives and times around the house in photographs, paintings, concert handbills and posters and other memorabilia. But the house is not a museum and still feels like a family home, which gives it a very unique and special atmosphere as a venue for concerts and other musical events.

For me, the name Harold Craxton will always be synonymous with certain ABRSM editions of piano music, and I still have my red cloth-bound three-volume edition of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, edited by Harold Craxton and Donald Tovey, and a faded mauve paperback of Chopin’s Nocturnes, even though I have now graduated to dusky blue Henle urtext editions.

Visiting Craxton Studios for a Sunday afternoon recital by acclaimed British pianist Sarah Beth Briggs was like stepping back into another era: the antique Bluthner piano, the Arts & Crafts decor, the audience and even the generous high tea after the concert all created an atmosphere of “music for friends amongst friends”, and a reminder of how music was enjoyed over 100 years ago. The concert was in memory of pianist and teacher Denis Matthews, who died in 1988. He was good friends with the Craxton family and visited the house on Kidderpore Avenue many times.

Sarah Beth Briggs studied with Denis Matthews for many years and the concert was her personal tribute to an adored and inspirational teacher. All the pieces she played had a special connection for her with Dennis, and indeed the opening piece, Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor K475, was the first piece Sarah heard Denis perform in a concert in Newcastle, when she was still quite a young child. As she explained in her engaging introduction, it was also the piece that convinced her that Mozart could be as dramatic and colourful as Beethoven. It was a persuasive and authoritative opener and tied in neatly with Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ Sonata which followed it, the Beethoven highlighting many aspects of Mozart’s writing.

After such a dramatic first half, Sarah then played a Debussy Prelude, explaining that Denis loved the music of Claude Debussy, and she and he spent many hours working on the first book of Preludes together. Des pas sur la neige is a brief and icy excursion into a snowy landscape, the ascending figure in the left hand in the opening (and shared between the hands later in the piece) suggesting feet trudging through snow. This was followed by Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, prefaced by an introduction by Sarah in which she quoted the late John Ogdon’s description of the work: “it lasts only twelve minutes…..it contains the experience of a lifetime”. Sarah gave a passionate and engrossing account of this perhaps the most popular and complex of all of Chopin’s Ballades.

After the performance, Sarah explained that Denis had always felt it was inappropriate to follow Chopin’s Ballade with an encore, and in his spirit she simply thanked the audience for coming before taking a final curtain call. We were then directed into the dining room of the house where a magnificent high tea was laid out: tiny sandwiches and canapés, petit fours, and several different cakes (most of which were homemade). While the guests were filling their plates with delicacies, the organisers had cleared the studio of chairs and laid out tables with white cloths. Tea was served in the studio where the concert had taken place, providing a very civilised and quaintly old-fashioned end to a very enjoyable afternoon of music making, the pieces played with obvious affection and imbued with very special memories for the pianist. I was delighted to be a guest at such a gathering and to have the opportunity to talk to Sarah afterwards.

Craxton Studios

Craxton Memorial Trust

Sarah Beth Briggs

My review of Sarah’s new recording of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert

Meet the Artist……Sarah Beth Briggs

My local music society based at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington is proving a rich and varied source of fine music this autumn. Last month I attended excellent concerts by Helen Burford, in an eclectic programme of mostly contemporary music, and Joseph Tong who played works by McCabe, Sibelius and Ravel, and ended with a rollicking ‘Wanderer Fantasy’ by Schubert. For the first concert of November, pianist Madelaine Jones returned to the NPL to give a lunchtime recital of works by Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and little-known female composer Louise Farrenc.

4bfbb2f28b-DSCF5588Now in her final year at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in Greenwich, south-east London, Madelaine studies with my piano teacher, Penelope Roskell (I first met Maddie at one of my teacher’s weekend courses, some three years ago). A busy performing musician, Madelaine is now looking beyond next summer to where her musical studies might take her next: this recital was an opportunity for her to perform her programme for forthcoming auditions at the Royal Academy and Royal College of Music, Trinity, and Yale, amongst others.

Madelaine introduced her programme, explaining that Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ is considered to be the Old Testament of music, while Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas are the New Testament. As it happened, her programme contained works from both, and the opening Prelude from the Prelude & Fugue in D minor BWV 875 from Book 2 of the WTC was played with vigour, colour, and crisp articulation (Madelaine also plays the harpsichord, evident in her lightness of touch in the Prelude). The Fugue was more thoughtful, with sensitive attention to the strands of counterpoint (in her introduction, Madelaine described a fugue rather charmingly as “voices chasing each other”). This was an authoritative account, and a splendid opener for the concert.

Beethoven’s Opus 10 Piano Sonatas were published in 1798. The first and the third of the Opus are serious and tempestuous (the Op 10, no. 1 prefigures the Pathétique Sonata), but the middle sonata of the triptych, Op 10 no. 2 in F major, is more light-hearted, a “cheeky” first movement which amply displays Beethoven’s characteristic wit and musical humour. Madelaine was alert to the rapid shifts of mood, dynamics, and orchestration in Beethoven’s writing: a sprightly first movement gave way to an elegant minuet and trio, followed by a fugal finale, nimbly played by Madelaine. Sparing use of the pedal, precise articulation and musical intelligence resulted in a very colourful and enjoyable account of this early period sonata.

In a change to the printed programme, Stravinsky’s second Piano Sonata (1924) came next, again engagingly introduced by Madelaine. Composed while Stravinsky was resident in Paris in the 1920s, this Sonata harks back to Baroque and Classical models, and it was an inspired piece of programming to place it straight after the Beethoven, which helped illuminate the classical elements inherent in Stravinsky’s writing (a first movement in Sonata form – exposition, development, recapitulation – followed by a slow movement). Indeed, the slow movement, as Madelaine put it, was written as if Stravinsky had taken a typical Beethoven slow movement and simply “allowed the hands the wander around the keyboard”. Madelaine’s precise attention to detail, tonal clarity, energy of attack, and musical understanding made for a most interesting performance.

To finish Madelaine played the Air russe varié, op. 17 by Louise Dumont Farrenc, a French composer who, according to Schumann, writing in his Die neue Zeitschrift für Musik showed great promise, but who has fallen into obscurity. And indeed the work Madelaine performed was redolent of Schumann’s own music with its contrasting and varied movements and musical volte-faces. This work was proof that Madelaine is equally comfortable in Romantic repertoire, delivering a performance that caught the full emotional sweep and virtuosity of this music: a committed, bravura performance founded on solid technique and undeniable musicality.

Details of Madelaine’s forthcoming concerts can be found on her website:

madelainejones.co.uk

My Meet the Artist interview with Madelaine

Forthcoming concerts at the National Physical Laboratory Musical Society:

6th November – Corrine Morris, cello and Kathron Sturrock, piano

11th November – Alice Pinto, piano

18th November – Nadav Hertzka, piano

22nd November – Kathron Sturrock, piano

26th November – Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist), piano in works by Bach, Cage, Debussy, Liszt, Elgar, and Messiaen

Concerts take place in the Scientific Music, Bushy House, National Physical Laboratory, Teddington TW11 0LW, and start at 12.45pm. Tickets £3 on the door.

All 32 Piano Sonatas in a day? Read on……

Celebrated pianist Julian Jacobson, acclaimed for the vitality, colour and insight he brings to his performances, celebrates the 10th anniversary of his first all-Beethoven charity piano marathon by staging this amazing event once more. The event will run from 9.15am-10pm on 15th October 2013 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, with the aim of raising money for WaterAid and St Martin-in-the-Fields’ The Connection at St Martin’s which gives crisis grants to people in need across the UK.  Donate here.

Julian Jacobson (photo credit: Roger Harris)

Julian will perform all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas from memory in chronological order with the exception of Op. 106 ‘Hammerklavier’, prefaced by the Sonata in E minor, Op 90, which together will form a special lunchtime concert from 1-2pm within the marathon event itself. Likewise there will be a special ‘Total Beethoven’ concert at 7pm that evening which will conclude the day’s marathon. During this outstanding feat of endurance – undertaken by only two other pianists – he plans to take just 2 longer breaks of 30 minutes each on the day and a few shorter breaks of just 5 minutes each. The event will be live-streamed with a button for people to donate during the webcast.

This will be a very special event indeed. Aside from the sheer Herculean task of learning, absorbing and reproducing all those notes, and sustaining a performance for over twelve hours, to hear Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas in (almost) chronological order offers a far-reaching overview of Beethoven’s musical style, the development of the piano sonata as a genre in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century, and a glimpse into the inner workings of Beethoven’s compositional life and personality.

I asked Julian about the special challenges of preparing for such a musical marathon

CEP: How do you prepare, mentally and physically, for such a performance? What are the particular challenges of presenting all 32 Sonatas in one day?

JJ: Just attempt not to drown. An insane project. Go through all the sonatas in decreasing circles (revision over two months, then again over one month, two weeks, one week, three days…..). Try and keep fit, or get a bit fitter.

Admission to the event during the day is free, with a donation. Book tickets for the evening concert ‘Total Beethoven’ (7pm) via the Box Office: 020 7766 1100 or online from the St Martin-in-the-Fields website.

Read Julian Jacobson’s blog about the project

www.julianjacobson.com