Franz Schubert – ‘Winterreise’, Temple Church, 24 July 2018

Angelika Kirchschlager, mezzo-soprano, and Julius Drake, piano

Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth

Schubert’s song cycle – surely the greatest work of its kind – sets to music a series of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller. In the opening lines, the protagonist begins an unspecified journey on foot, leaving behind a woman who, back in the Spring, he believed he would marry. But now the affair is over. By the second song, we find out her parents have made a better match.

In the bitter, freezing night, he strives to leave the town behind him. But his route is obscure, as he encounters familiar landmarks, signposts, a village, even the post van – and most of all, throughout, he feels the effects of nature: snow, wind, water, clouds, lightning. Towards the end of the cycle, the sense that this voyage is at least partly interior strengthens. Hallucinations get the better of him: an apparently friendly guiding light, multiple suns – all symbols for what he has lost). Finally, he meets a mysterious ‘organ-grinder’, and considers joining him, to sing and play together. There are a number of interpretations of the ending out there: the one I favour – and I think I’ve come across the most – is that the figure indicates the cycle is eternal. The hurdy-gurdy goes round and round for ever, and the grinder could even be the wanderer’s future self. Or, he could, simply, be Death.

(No-one seems to think he’s just an organ grinder.)

Schubert composed the first 12 songs in the cycle in early 1827, before he even knew about the rest of the poems in the sequence. The story of his friends’ utter bewilderment on hearing them is often told in programme notes and CD booklets, so I won’t repeat it in detail here. But with all these years’ hindsight, it seems to me that ‘Winterreise’ must have sent shivers down their spines because Schubert wrote exactly the music the words demanded. There are tantalising flashes of vigour, even joy – and brilliantly robust, yet fractured piano parts that mirror so well a voice wracked with both determination and despondency – but the overall mood is poignant, downbeat and unresolved.

‘Winterreise’ might be cold to the touch, but it’s difficult to escape its icy grip. Speaking as an avid listener, I seem to gather recordings of it in an almost addictive way, constantly searching for new angles and insights.

Singers are drawn to it like moths to a blue flame. Perhaps it’s the art song equivalent of a Hamlet, or Lear – a rite of passage. Many feel the urge to visit and re-visit it. Ian Bostridge has a famously close relationship with the cycle, writing a book about it, and recently performing a semi-staged, orchestrated version against projected footage of his younger self. Mark Padmore and Florian Boesch have each recorded it twice in the last ten years (with different accompanists).

And that’s just a few of the men. However, the protagonist of ‘Winterreise’ – definitely a chap – must be an irresistible ‘trouser role’…? (It’s easy to forget that song is as visual a medium as opera – writing before recorded music was dreamt of, Schubert could only ever have imagined someone standing up, putting these songs across to a live audience.) But even though there are numerous recordings – including Brigitte Fassbaender, Christa Ludwig, Nathalie Stutzmann or one of my personal favourites, Alice Coote’s searing live disc – the opportunity to hear a woman perform ‘Winterreise’ live still feels all too rare.

On this occasion we were in Temple Church to hear mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager’s interpretation, for the first time. I’ve always found Kirchschlager’s performances of art song thrilling: as much acted as sung, and with a captivating emotional range. I was excited to hear how she would apply this over a continuous narrative, rather than stand-alone lieder. What I experienced was completely fearless, at times frustrating but always fascinating.

The venue was both friend and foe. In Temple Church, at least where my companions and I were sitting, there’s a gloriously resonant but quite echoey acoustic. I’m not a sonic scientist, but at times, it felt like the voice and piano clashed slightly because a rumble of bass notes would tumble all over each other, or a phrase would be lost (for example, in the helter-skelter ‘Rückblick’ / ‘A backward glance’). At other points, however, in slower songs like ‘Wasserflut’ / ‘Flood’ or ‘Irrlicht’ / ‘Will-o’-the-wisp’, a fantastic sustain effect was created, allowing Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake to continue singing and playing with the traces of the previous note or two still fading. This really enhanced the continuous feel of the performance and lent a sinister edge that would be hard to replicate in a studio recording.

Kirchschlager’s commitment to the piece was total, and I believe she portrayed the cyclic structure of the story as much through her body language as her voice. In the opening ‘Gute Nacht’ / ‘Good night’, she was still, transfixed, even to the point where I thought she was warming up in some way, not quite in full flow yet. Almost immediately, though, she opened out and began to move. Only in the final song, ‘Der Leiermann’ / ‘The organ-grinder’, when she withdrew back into herself, adopting the same pose, staring at some phantom far beyond the audience, did I realise – thoroughly moved and disquieted – that at the start we had seen her protagonist emerge, and now disappear.

Unafraid to sound harsh or broken when the context demanded, Kirchschlager could come across at times as if the acting were leading the singing. So effective was she in the cycle’s mood swings that the intensity felt a bit like listening to a 75-minute ‘Erlkönig’, a rollercoaster ghost-train ride that kept me riveted. But this didn’t prevent the emotional high-points of the sequence – in particular, the soaring anguish of the penultimate song ‘Die Nebensonnen’ / ‘Phantom suns’, Kirchschlager’s bright, glorious tone so tragically affecting – hitting home with a devastating beauty.


Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at

Twitter: @adrian_specs

Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

1474399967_piter

Scriabin – Piano Sonata No.2 in G sharp minor Op.19
RavelMiroirs
Mozart – Piano Sonata in C K279
Schubert – Piano Sonata in A D959

Monday 18th June 2018, Wigmore Hall. Peter Donohoe, piano

I can think of few better ways to celebrate a significant birthday than a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall: a beautiful venue with a warm atmosphere, an audience of friends and supporters, and a generous programme of music reflecting the breadth and range of Peter Donohoe’s talents and musical tastes, and celebrating a long and acclaimed international career.

Anyone who attended Peter’s Scriabin sonatas marathon at Milton Court last year (the complete piano sonatas performed in three concerts in a single day) will know that Peter has a real affinity for the diverse and mercurial qualities of Scriabin’s writing, so this early piano sonata proved a good opener, reconfirming Peter’s ability to create multi-hued, highly expressive music and capture Scriabin’s fleeting, often volatile moods. And its rather fantasy-like qualities set the scene well for Ravel’s Miroirs, which for me was the real tour de force of this concert. Here was piano playing of the highest order – exquisite layers of sound, moments of aching beauty, and a clear vision for each movement to shape their individual characters and narratives. Oiseaux Tristes was heat-soaked and languid, its ennui washed away by the sparkling, rolling waves of Une barque sur l’océan – for me the highlights of this set. In both the Scriabin and Ravel, Peter displayed a wonderfully natural insouciance, presumably born of a long association with this music, which brought spontaneity to the performance.

The second half was occupied with the classical sonata form, in the hands of two masters – Mozart and Schubert. While the Mozart was elegant and intimate, as if played at home amongst friends, Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata was pacy and expansive. Here Schubert experimented with the possibilities of the classical sonata form, creating, with its companions the D958 and D960, a triptych of sonatas of “heavenly length” and wide-ranging musical ideas. The first movement of the D959 had grandeur and scale, emphasised by the exposition repeat, which Peter observed, and tempered by moments of introspection and wistfulness, though never melancholy. Its infamous slow movement was a reflective meditation shot through with a barely-controlled frenzy, rather than a funereal dirge with hysteria (the preferred approach of some pianists who shall remain nameless and who insist on reading the marking Andantino as Adagio….). Schubert’s shifts of gear, bittersweet harmonies and moments of wistfulness were neatly captured throughout. The finale was warm and consoling, nostalgic and ultimately hopeful. One can only wonder what else Schubert might have done with the sonata form had he lived longer…..

For an encore, Peter played Mozart’s D minor fantasy, beloved of pianists everywhere and a neat contrast to the quasi-fantasy of the Scriabin which opened this magnanimous concert.

Hugh Mather, the indefatigable director of concerts at St Mary’s Perivale in West London, introduces a major weekend festival of Chopin’s immortal piano music, and examines some of the rationale behind the festival.

We are holding the St Mary’s Perivale Chopin Festival from Friday 15th June to Sunday 17th. In summary, this comprises most of Chopin’s solo piano works played by 21 excellent pianists giving recitals of 24 to 44 minutes, providing about 12 hours piano music over a glorious weekend of piano-playing.

Firstly, it gives a chance to ‘show-case’ the amazing pianistic and musical skills of so many of our younger pianists. I currently have a shortlist of about 80 pianists who are certainly good enough to give a decent solo recital in my concerts, and the 21 playing in the festival include some of the best. In alphabetical order, they are Ashley Fripp, Artur Haftman, Tyler Hay, Dinara Klinton, Ilya Kondratiev, Renata Konyicska, Ke Ma, Viv McLean, Mikhail Shilyaev, Asagi Nakata, Luka Okros, Mengyang Pan, Mihai Ritivoiu, Tamila Salimdjanova, Colin Stone, Iyad Sughayer, Michal Szymanowski, Julian Trevelyan, Amit Yahav, Yuanfan Yang and Hao Zi Yoh. Most are young (aged below 30) and have won multiple awards in international competitions. Many pianists – possibly most – are at their peak when aged 25-30, after 15-20 years of excellent teaching, long hours of practice, sheer hard work, intense competition and financial support, with little need to divert their energies into piano teaching and other activities to provide an income. Our pianists come from all over the world, with different musical and pianistic backgrounds, and it will be endlessly fascinating to hear their varied approaches to Chopin. This is much preferable to hearing any single pianist – be it Perahia, Zimerman, Pollini or a re-incarnated Rubinstein or Cortot – playing through all this repertoire. I am always amazed to hear how the same piano can sound so different with successive pianists. It will be a heavenly weekend for all pianophiles.

Secondly, it provides an opportunity to hear much neglected Chopin piano music. In the concert hall, Chopin performances tend to be dominated by the same few ‘warhorses’ which most pianists feel obliged to learn and perform. I have undertaken an analysis of works played in over 700 concerts at St Mary’s Perivale in the past decade. Way out top is the ubiquitous G minor Ballade, which has been played 16 times, followed by the Barcarolle and 3rd Scherzo (11), the 3rd and 4th Ballades and Polonaise-Fantaisie (9), the F minor Fantasy, 2nd Scherzo and 3rd Sonata (7) and the 2nd Ballade, Polonaise Op 53 and 2nd sonata (6 times). By contrast, many of the smaller pieces are hardly ever programmed. When I assembled the programme, I asked all the pianists to list all the works they could offer, and it was instructive to see so many offering – yes, the G minor ballade – the A minor Mazurka Op 17 no 4 and the D flat Nocturne Op 27 no 2 , but surprisingly few other mazurkas or nocturnes. On CD, the situation is complicated by the almost universal practice of complete sets of nocturnes, polonaises, mazurkas and waltzes. Hearing all the mazurkas or waltzes in succession isn’t a satisfactory musical diet. Our festival provides a satisfying mix of all the different genres throughout the festival, and a chance to hear many under-performed works in concert. It comprises 12 hours of music, out of the approximately 16 hours in total of Chopin’s solo piano music, without any repetition of a single work. Some early works are omitted, such as the first sonata, and some early variations, but much gorgeous music which is rarely heard in concert will be included. This required a complicated jigsaw puzzle, and was achieved by asking all pianists to list works they could offer, and giving them a limit of one major work (sonata, scherzo or ballade etc), to ‘spread the jam’ evenly among all the musicians!

Thirdly, it is particularly appropriate to hold the festival this year, and in Ealing, which has the highest proportion of native Polish speakers in the UK. Many Polish soldiers who fought alongside British troops in the second world war settled in the borough after the conflict ended. Their numbers were boosted in subsequent waves – first, around the time martial law was imposed in Poland in the early 1980s, then at Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004. Chopin has, of course, always occupied a special place in Polish culture. And in this year, we mark the 100th anniversary of Poland regaining its independence in 1918. Our festival can be regarded as part of this celebration. It also marks the 170th anniversary of Chopin’s visit to London and Scotland in 1848, the year before his death. Our festival will commence with a short introductory lecture from Amit Yahav, entitled, ‘Chopin: A Polish Poet at the Piano in Paris’ to set the scene and to consider the main features of his life and the influences on his piano composition.

ci04
Inside St Mary’s Perivale
Fourthly, it utilizes the special atmosphere of St Mary’s Perivale. This is a charming, small and intimate venue which has much more in common with the Paris salons of Chopin’s day than those other larger venues in Central London. It is a Grade 1-listed architectural jewel which is blessed with excellent acoustics and a glorious ambience. Its small size creates problems of its own, in that our church can only seat a maximum of 100 people, but we are confident that this will accommodate our audience. No tickets will be sold beforehand. All our pianists will be paid £200 for their performance, and we are charging £15 for admission to each long session. Since they contain between 3 and 6 piano recitals, we think that this is a reasonable charge, and compares well with those for piano recitals elsewhere. Please bring cash rather than cards or cheques.

In summary, this promises to be a very special weekend of exceptional piano-playing which should appeal to lovers of Chopin and the piano, in London and further afield. Come along to enjoy Chopin in Perivale!

St Mary’s Perivale Chopin Festival runs from 15 to 17 June 2018. Full details of all performers and programmes here

For more details about the church and other concerts at St Mary’s please visit www.st-marys-perivale.org.uk

Coloured-photo-of-St-Marys-Perivale-for-mag

Hugh Mather is a pianist, organist and retired physician, who organizes classical concerts at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas Ealing.

As friends and some readers/followers of this blog already know, I am leaving London towards the end of this month for a new life in Dorset, in the west of England. I say “new life” though in fact the county is familiar – my husband hails from Dorset (Poole) and we were married in Stourton Caundle, a tiny village near the attractive minster town of Sherborne. So I have had an association with Dorset, and visit regularly, for 30 years.

When I first mentioned I was planning this move, certain friends exclaimed “but how will you manage without the Wigmore Hall and all the concerts/music?“. It’s true that leaving London and its vibrant musical and cultural life will be hard – I have lived in or near London for 40 years and for much of that time, concert-going in the capital has been an important part of my life. But I will not lack music in the West Country: as another friend who relocated to Spain a few years’ ago said to me before she left, “I have lots of CDs to listen to and there’s Radio Three“. Many Wigmore Hall concerts are broadcast on Radio Three, as are concerts from other concerts halls around the UK and beyond, so even if I am not there in person, I can at least be there in spirit! In addition there’s also Spotify, Medici TV and much more. There is also plenty of live music making outside the Metropolis: I have already had friendly exchanges with Plush Festival (Andras Schiff is the headline artist at this year’s festival) and I look forward to reviewing some concerts there later this summer; and many leading artists play at regional festivals and concert societies before presenting their programmes at a London concert hall. It may take a little more effort to get to places, but my husband has promised to buy me a Smart car.

In addition, I am looking forward to forging new connections with musical people in the west country, many of whom I have already “met” online via social media.

The blog of course is not going anywhere – it is both local and global, and will continue in the same vein for as long as I have the interest and motivation to write it. So far, it has brought me many interesting and stimulating encounters with musicians, both professional and amateur, journalists, critics, writers and other bloggers on music and culture, a number of whom have become close friends of mine. This sense of “community” is very important to me, as are the meaningful interactions I have both via the blog and social media in general. It is for this reason that I have, unlike some other bloggers, kept commenting open on the site to encourage conversation and discussion.

In fact, my relocation will, I hope, offer more time to write as I will be giving up piano teaching (at least for the time being). A book has been on my mind for some years, and a number of other writing projects. I am also looking forward to having more time to play the piano – and to reflect on playing the piano (which no doubt will prompt further blog posts!).

Thank you to everyone who reads, follows and shares this blog. I look forward to sharing many more thoughts on music and piano playing with you.

Guest review by Mary Grace Nguyen

Extraordinary, unconventional, interactive and fun are the words I would use to describe the launch of crossover artist and classical music pianist AyseDeniz Gokcin’s new album, A Chopin Affair: Sonatas. On Friday night [March 9th] St James’s Sussex Gardens near Paddington was surprisingly packed – people had to find chairs and create their own space to sit down. The audience was a mix of savvy young artists, bright-eyed students, middle-aged professionals and family members keen to grab a glass of wine, relax and listen to some scintillating Chopin.

IMG_3036

The Turkish classical pianist has produced crossover albums including music inspired by Pink Floyd and Kurt Cobain from Nirvana. She recently told me in an interview, “if you look at history, Liszt was a showman and Chopin was very much behind the scenes…they were very innovative and active. We don’t have that anymore.” Breaking the mould, Gokcin sees a gap in the classical music industry, “although I do crossover projects, they have a message. There are issues that I care about.” Gokcin is on a mission to change society, one way or other, whether it’s through channeling classical works in a unique way or transmitting a social message about issues she cares about through brand new music.

Sitting on the right of the stage, by the grand piano, was street artist and Instagram star, Zabou and conceptual artist from the Royal College of Art, Tommy Ramsay. Both artists accompanied Gokcin in the art of painting as she performed Chopin’s Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 &  3. One sonata after the other, Ramsay and Zabou presented their own depiction of what Gokcin had prepared for them on the piano keys through Chopin’s music.

Screen Shot 2018-03-11 at 01.12

As a regular concertgoer, I am used to people turning off their phones beforehand, but here photography was almost encouraged. The audience took endless photographs of the entire event and despite the usual concert etiquette standards, it felt entirely acceptable for this relaxed and quirky event.

Although a late start, Gokcin was in good spirits and beaming with excitement when she came on stage. Presenting herself in a black laced skateboard dress, she expressed her personal relationship with Chopin’s music and her interest in his relationship with female writer George Sand with little hesitation. She recalled her years as a student, learning the sonatas and discovering the deep and emotional connection she had with the music from being away from home, performing in interesting and unusual venues such as the Kremlin in Moscow or a basketball court in Ecuador.

Piano Sonata No. 2 includes the immediately-recognisable Funeral March; a slow and sombre movement with a highly lyrical middle section. Gokcin’s dexterous fingers did not lose form in this movement. In fact, she appeared more focused and attentive. From the outset, the first two movements and last (Grave, Scherzo and Finale) are a feast of lyrical themes, varying tempo and dynamics. It was marvellous watching Gokcin perform with great control and confidence, sliding her fingers across the piano and never missing a beat.

The “Funeral March” sonata contrasts with the optimism and major key of the Piano Sonata No. 3. Gokcin encapsulated the serene and beautiful melodic tones in the Scherzo – Molto Vivace, and took the pace down a notch with the Largo. With Gokcin’s playing, she takes you on an infinite journey into the unknown, but you’d happily walk the same path for ever. Where the music was uplifting, Gokcin maintained the energy and where the notes needed emotional stock, Gorkin intimately fused with the music.

Interestingly, despite the more relaxed atmosphere, no one in the audience applauded between movements. Here was another of the very few concerts that celebrate the accessibility and inclusive nature of classical music. Maybe we need to take a leaf out of Gokcin’s book and find new ways to become more innovative.


Mary Grace Nguyen is a blogger and reviewer at TrendFem focussing on opera, theatre, dance, music and art. She holds an MA in Journalism from Birkbeck College, and graduated from SOAS with a degree in Anthropology and studied Modern Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In addition to her blog, Mary has also written for various online publications including LondonTheatre1, LDNCARD, Fringe Opera, CultureVulture.net and Theatre and Perform.

Twitter: @MaryGNguyen

 

 

 

jeremydenk_3226643k

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