pianist Helen Burford
pianist Helen Burford

While the famous south London parakeets squawked in the trees of Bushy Park outside, inside Bushy House, home to the National Physical Laboratory’s Musical Society, Brighton-based pianist Helen Burford gave a lunchtime recital of great imagination and musical colour, demonstrating the full tonal, percussive and emotional range the piano can offer.

Now in its 63rd season, the NPL Musical Society hosts regular concerts throughout the year featuring a varied range of artists, both established and up-and-coming, and provides useful performance experience for young musicians in conservatoires and music colleges who are preparing for end of year, or final recitals. (Indeed, my own piano teacher played at the NPL when she was a young woman.) The venue boasts a rather stately 1911 Steinway, and the audience is supportive, friendly and interested.

Helen trained at Birmingham Conservatoire, the University of Sussex and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and has studied with a number of renowned teachers, including Heather Slade-Lipkin, Peter Feuchtwanger and Stephen Gutman. A champion of British and American new music, her NPL concert reflected her passion for this repertoire, with an eclectic programme of works by contemporary composers, including Martin Butler and David Rakowski.

Chick Corea’s ‘Three Improvisations’ offered a gentle entrée to the programme. The first and third pieces in the triptych, Where have I known you before and Where have I loved you before, were played with a wistful, sensuous sensitivity, while the middle movement was a lively, toe-tapping dance.

I have heard Helen perform Somei Satoh’s ‘Incantation II’ several times, and each time it has been slightly different, and always highly absorbing. The work, which has never been published, relies on the minimalist technique of prolonging a single unit of sound, while creating the sensation of a ‘rhythmic limbo’, a sense of stasis that is characteristically Japanese (cf the music of Toru Takemitsu). The music makes full use of the piano’s resonant qualities, creating a remarkable bloom of sound, which suggests a variety of instruments including cello, horn, bells, harp, drums. Building slowly from a simple opening, this music is hypnotic and meditative, and Helen’s controlled and intense performance made this an extraordinary and unusual musical experience.

Following this with a sonata by Scarlatti was inspired, for it highlighted not only the mannered elegance of the Baroque but also how revolutionary Scarlatti was, in his daring use of dissonance and unusual harmonies. It was performed with a lyrical simplicity.

The next work, a piece by composer Ester Mägi, named after an instrument called a kannel, a kind of plucked zither or psaltery, recalled the folk music of Mägi’s native Estonia with stamping off-beats and haunting melodies, to which Helen brought great colour, sensitive dynamic shading, and rhythmic vitality.

From the folk idioms of eastern Europe to the industrial western city in Martin Butler’s ‘Rumba Machine’, a celebratory fanfare-like piece, which suggests swiftly turning cogs and wheels of machines and the blaring sirens and honking horns of the city over a compelling rumba beat. This, together with David Rakowski’s witty Étude ‘A Gliss is Just a Gliss’, a study on glissandi, was played with an extrovert elan, bringing to a close a most enjoyable and refreshingly original lunchtime recital.

Helen will be performing a similar programme at the launch of the South London Concert Series on 29th November 2013 at the 1901 Arts Club. Further details here slcs1901.wordpress.com. Tickets southlondonconcerts@gmail.com

https://soundcloud.com/cross-eyedpianist/three-piano-improvisations

NPL Musical Society concerts take place in the Scientific Museum, Bushy House, National Physical Laboratory, Teddington TW11 0LW. Tickets £3 on the door.

Upcoming concerts this season include: 23 October – Joseph Tong, piano; 1 November – Madelaine Jones, piano; 11 November – Alice Pinto, piano; 22 November – Kathron Sturrock, piano. Further details Stephen.Lea@npl.co.uk

©Philip Mead
©Philip Mead

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

My father who was an amateur pianist, piano tuner, conductor and trumpet player

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

Ruth Harte and Stephen Savage for piano

Stephen Rhys for general music

Hans Keller and Henry David Thoreau for philosophy.

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

Giving the first London performance of the Cowell Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in January 2004. The score is little more than a sketch.

Organising the first complete performance of the ‘Spectrum’ series of piano pieces with 144 pianists lasting 8 hours in 2008

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

Complete Ives piano music on Metier

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

St Augustine’s Church, Cambridge

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

Ives piano music

Who are your favourite musicians? 

The composer Horacio Vaggione.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

The previously mentioned Cowell Piano Concerto premiere

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

Find your own way of doing things.

As a teacher make yourself dispensible as soon as possible.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Ives Concord Sonata

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Still alive

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

A meal with my wife and children

What is your most treasured possession? 

My Boston Grand piano

What do you enjoy doing most?

Dreaming

What is your present state of mind? 

Contented

Philip Mead studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music, London, receiving numerous prizes and awards and a distinction in his final practical exam. Mead was a prize winner of the 1978 Gaudeamus International competition for Interpreters of Contemporary Music, and since then has been at the forefront of contemporary music in this country. He has performed virtually the entire piano music of Messiaen at London’s Southbank Centre, and given premieres by major composers such as Crumb and Stockhausen.

Philip Mead’s full biography

www.philipmead.com

British Contemporary Piano Competition 2013