An initial approach via this blog in March 2017  led me this week to St George’s Bristol for a lunchtime concert by the sparkling Piano 4 Hands duo (Waka Hasegawa and Joseph Tong).

Last year Josie Dixon emailed me to ask if I might feature her mother, the composer Ailsa Dixon, in my Meet the Artist series. One of Ailsa’s choral works was receiving its premiere as part of the Oriana Choir’s Five15 project. This was rather special because, as Josie explained, her mother had rather “hidden her light under a bushel for the majority of her lifetime”. Ailsa’s interview was published on my Meet the Artist site in July 2017, to coincide with the premiere of her anthem These things shall be, a setting of verses by John Addington Symonds. Around the same time, Josie contacted me again to ask if I knew a piano duo who might be interested in giving Ailsa’s piano sonata ‘Airs of the Seasons’ its first performance. Knowing their fondness for contemporary repertoire for piano duo, I immediately suggested Waka Hasegawa and Joseph Tong (Piano 4 Hands), and was delighted to hear from Josie that they had enthusiastically taken up the piano sonata.

Sadly, Ailsa died in August 2017, just short of her 85th birthday.

In April this year, as I was in the throes of preparing to move from London to the West Country, Josie contacted me again to tell me that Waka and Joseph would be premiering Ailsa’s piano sonata in Bristol on 8 November. As I’d never visited St George’s (considered by many of my musician friends and colleagues to possess the UK’s finest acoustic), nor heard Waka and Joseph together as a duo, I was delighted to join Josie and her family and friends to celebrate the premiere of her mother’s piano sonata.

St George’s, a former church in the graceful, well-proportioned Greek Revival style of the early 1820s, is a really fine venue, and a handsome new extension has added a contemporary bar and social area which perfectly complements the building’s clean neo-classical lines. The concert hall itself retains the columns and balcony of the original church, together with a fine altarpiece. A small illuminated star in the ceiling indicates where a bomb fell through the roof during the Second World War but did not explode. At just shy of 600 seats, St George’s is about the same size as London’s Wigmore Hall.

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St George’s Bristol with its new extension

The purity of St George’s acoustic combined with Waka and Joseph’s split-second precision, supreme technical assuredness and musical sensitivity brought wonderful clarity and contrasting shading to Mozart’s Andante with Variations KV 501, which opened the concert. This linked neatly to David Matthews’ Variations on a theme by Haydn, which was written for Waka and Joseph. The unsually chromatic theme from the opening of Haydn’s last string quartet is the starting point for this set of 12 variations which initially remain close to the originally theme before moving into wider musical territory, including a tango (Var. 5), a blues variation (Var. 7) and a moto perpetuo (Var. 10). The work has a delightful sense of fantasy suffused with romanticism and musical wit, and ends with a humorous exchange between the two players which Haydn would surely have appreciated. It was evident from the performance that Waka and Joseph really relish this kind of repertoire, which proves that the piano duet is not confined to small-scale salon works.

Ailsa Dixon’s Airs of the Seasons was composed in the early 1990s and is her only substantial work for piano. Its four brief movements are each prefaced by a short poem, evoking in turn the magical stillness after a winter snowfall, the first stirrings of spring, a dragonfly darting over the water in summer, and finally amid the turning leaves of autumn, a retrospective mood which recalls the earlier seasons and ends with the hope of transcendence in ‘Man’s yearning to see beyond death’. The opening chords of the first movement are reminiscent of Debussy and Britten in their timbres, and the entire work has a distinctly impressionistic flavour. Ailsa’s admiration of Fauré for his “harmonic suppleness” is also evident in her harmonic language, while the idioms of English folksong and hymns, and melodic motifs redolent of John Ireland and the English Romantics remind us that this is most definitely a work by a British composer with an original musical vision. The entire work, although quite short, is really delightful and inventive. Rich in imagination, moods and expression, the musical evocation of each season is distinct and characterful – Summer, for example, is not all sunshine as a brief but dramatic storm interrupts the warmth and serenity, while Autumn contains flashes of music from earlier movements to underline its reflective, retrospective mood. From a pianistic point of view, the textures of the music are carefully conceived to bring a range of colours and voicings imaginatively shared between the two players.

Mme Debussy deemed her husband’s La Mer unplayable in its piano four-hands version, but Waka and Joseph made impressively light work of this masterful evocation of water, light and wind (and reminded me of my coastal home in Dorset, currently in the grip of gale force autumnal winds!). Their brilliant pianism complemented by total synergy at the keyboard brought this work to life with vivid drama and passion, and was a thrilling close to an absorbing and varied programme.

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back row: pianists Waka Hasegawa & Joseph Tong; front row from L to R – Brian Dixon (Ailsa’s husband), Josie Dixon (Ailsa’s daughter) and Frances Wilson (The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

Meet the Artist interview with Ailsa Dixon

More about Ailsa Dixon

A mile or so along the river from where I live in Teddington, SW London, the attractive 18th-century church of St Mary’s in Twickenham sits on a grassy plinth overlooking the Thames. And for the weekend of 10-12 June 2016, it became the home of a new chamber music festival, directed by Emily Pailthorpe of the London Conchord Ensemble.

Regional and local classical music festivals are such a good idea. They take music out of formal metropolitan concert venues and into communities, forging important and lasting connections between musicians, local people and venues, and many attract world class performers, as well as encouraging young musicians. Conchord Festival boasted an impressive roster of performers, including actor Simon Callow and baritone Roderick Williams. I was delighted to attend the Saturday afternoon concert, music for piano duo performed by Alasdair Beatson and Julian Milford.

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The theme of the concert was dance and the connecting thread was Sergei Diaghilev, ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, who collaborated most famously with Igor Stravinsky in the staging of The Rite of Spring, the piano 4-hands version of which concluded the concert. The afternoon opened with Debussy’s Prelude à l’Aprés Midi d’un Faun, a symphonic poem which formed the basis of the ballet Afternoon of a Faun, choreogaphed by Nijinsky and staged by the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1912. The piano duo version was transcribed by Ravel and loses nothing of its sinuous lines and erotic textures in the piano reduction. Beatson and Milford’s performance was languorous, nuanced and sensuous, perfect for a humid summer’s afternoon. This was followed by four of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, a reminder of the popularity of music for piano duo during the nineteenth-century and a foot-tapping musical palette-cleanser before the main event, The Rite of Spring, which followed the interval.

When The Rite of Spring opened in Paris in May 1913 the avant-garde nature of the music and the staging caused a near-riot in the audience. The piece still has the power to shock over 100 years later, with its narrative of savage rituals and human sacrifice. Stravinsky first performed his own four-handed version of The Rite of Spring with Debussy, the arrangement created to accompany rehearsals for the first performance of the ballet. This music was born on the piano, written in a tiny room, so Stravinsky tells us, on an upright piano, and it contains an exhilarating and precarious excitement. Forget the orchestral version: here is a work of raw energy, convulsive rhythms and pagan exoticism, aptly described by Debussy as “a beautiful nightmare”. It remains a vertiginously challenging work for piano duet, straining the medium to its limits. Beatson and Milford rose to the challenge with aplomb, managing pianistic gymnastics with ease and creating a riot of colour, texture, rhythmic drive and narrative. The famous stamped-out chords were percussive and metallic, redolent of heavy machinery, pistons and steam engines. (Let us not forget this piece received its first performances as Europe was preparing for the most mechanised and destructive war in its history.) This was truly an enthralling journey.

Next year’s Conchord Festival takes place from 9-11 June 2017.

Geoffrey Saba

Two concerts in as many days, both in beautiful deconsecrated churches and both featuring the piano music of Franz Schubert. The first concert was at St John’s Smith Square, a church in the heart of Westminster regarded as one of the finest examples of English Baroque architecture. The venue also offers one of the finest acoustics for piano music in London, performed on this occasion by pianist Geoffrey Saba.

The programme opened with Schubert’s Sonata in B D575. Written when the composer was twenty and cast in four movements, it is suffused with sunshine and joy and Schubert’s special gemütlich, elegantly nuanced by Saba who played with a genial tone and acute sense of Schubert’s intimacy. The Four Impromptus D935 followed, and again we were treated to playing which was sensitively shaded and tastefully voiced, from the plaintive duetting fragments of the first Impromptu, through the long-spun theme and variations of the third to the sprightly and folksy flavours of the fourth. After the interval came the Sonata in A, D959, Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, composed in the last year of his life. Much has been written and debated about Schubert’s last three sonatas, in particular their length, the cyclic and motivic elements which they share, and, with regard to the A major Sonata, the extraordinary Andantino second movement, which is quite unlike anything else Schubert wrote.

For those who assert that this is Schubert’s “most serious” sonata I would highlight Mr Saba’s keen sense of the work’s life-affirming qualities, particularly in the final movement which unfolded with warmth and wit. In the opening movement there was a clear sense of the contrasting architecture and fastidious attention to articulation, while the Scherzo’s arpeggiated chords sparkled, contrasting with the more pastoral elements of this movement. Mr Saba observed all the Da Capo repeats (which many pianists choose to omit), lending a greater sense of significance to this movement and creating balance across the entire work. The slow movement opens with a melancholy barcarolle or folksong. Spare pedalling allowed us to appreciate the profound simplicity of this section before the “acute emotional disturbance” (Alfred Brendel) of the middle section. This was refined playing, always alert to Schubert’s lyricism, combined with a willingness to allow the music to speak for itself.

Geoffrey Saba will feature in a future Meet the Artist interview

www.geoffreysaba.com

Alan Schiller

On Sunday afternoon more Schubert at St Mary’s Perivale, a tiny 12th-century former chapel in west London. This venue is home to a lively and varied series of concerts, and attracts fine artists, both established and younger musicians. On this occasion we were treated to music for piano 4-hands by the Schiller-Humphreys Duo (Allan Schiller and John Humphreys). Both acclaimed in their own right as soloists, Schiller and Humphreys have been playing as a duo for over thirty years – and it shows in their relaxed yet perfectly synchronised style and evident enjoyment of the music they play. I page-turned for John and Allan at a concert at Steinway Hall in June 2015 and was afforded a rare and at times entertaining insight in to the “special relationship” of the piano duo.

John Humphreys

Sunday’s programme featured what is arguably the greatest work for piano duo, Schubert’s Fantasie in f minor, D940, to which John and Allan brought a keen sense of the narrative of the work while also highlighting the special characteristics of each movement. The rest of the concert featured music for piano 4-hands by Mozart (at his most profound and reflective in the Sonata K521 and rather more lighthearted and witty in the Andante and Variations K501), Hindemith’s Sonata for Piano duet which contained interesting echoes of the Schubert in its first movement, Ravel’s ever-popular Mother Goose suite and three Hungarian Dances by Brahms. The pianists, through their relaxed and friendly manner, created a convivial atmosphere, helped in no small part by tea and cakes after the concert, giving audience members a chance to mingle and meet the artists. An entirely satisfying and civilised way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

More on St Mary’s Perivale here

At the Piano with John Humphreys (interview)

York2 is the piano duo of John and Fiona York

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

John: My mother played quite well, we had a decent upright and the best teacher in Eastbourne lived round the corner. She was recommended to my mother by our piano tuner!

Fiona: My father. He was an extremely talented amateur pianist who was torn between career choices – Law won but he loved seeing me develop into a fully-fledged professional.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

F: My first teacher who was taught at Guildhall by Cimbro Martin, who also taught John, who also taught me…! The methods passed on to me are still going strong in my own teaching.

J: All four of my teachers – all very demanding and revealing – and my early, chance discovery of Debussy and French piano music in general which gave me direction for at least ten years at the start of my career.

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

J: Doing the Tchaikovsky competition was tough, demanding, horrible and a bit distressing – ultimately pretty pointless, too, considering that the UK government had only just evicted over a hundred spies from London!

F: In the early days, learning the big repertoire and persuading fixers and audiences that they really do want to hear the entire Planets Suite played on one piano!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

J: The York2 recording of Debussy’s La Mer – and one or two of our many Rite of Spring performances.

F: Of course the above, but also an extraordinary, impossibly fast, brilliant and thrilling four-minute piece called Impulse by Benjamin Wallfisch which he wrote for two pianos and two marimbas. We never actually met the marimba players…

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

F: The big orchestral duet works and, in total contrast, some of the ‘smallest’ salon repertoire such as Dolly Suite by Fauré or Jeux d’Enfants by Bizet which are extremely sophisticated in their own way and ever popular.

J: Those same pieces with York2 – and the Beethoven ‘cello works with Raphael Wallfisch.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

[J and F discuss…] No particular plan – the usual delving into anniversaries perhaps, unusual repertoire perhaps, nice couplings and strong juxtapositions – whatever feels good and is attractive to promoters and audiences.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

J: Like everyone else I’d always say the Wigmore Hall and, more recently, the main Kings Place hall near King’s Cross station. Both are beautiful, sound great and have real atmosphere.

F: The Singing Hall in St.Paul’s Girls’ School is a favourite – [J interrupts:I’d forgotten that one but absolutely agree!”]. It was designed and used by Holst in his role as Director of Music and the acoustic is still wonderful.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

F: To perform – The Rite. To listen to – Brahms 4

J: To perform – La Mer.  To listen to – Bruckner 8, or the entire Ring cycle.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

J: I’d always say one of the great orchestras before any soloist – but I admire some of the great singers – and also pianist Benjamin Grosvenor who has integrity and real class.  I really believe very few other pianists deserve the adulation they get these days – you probably know who I mean!

F: He might say that – I couldn’t possibly comment.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

F: A particularly bad one was playing Lutoslawski Paganini Variations for two pianos, 20 feet apart, to six people at 11 o’clock at night in the Salzburg Festival and hearing the receding footsteps of one of those six, who turned out to be the janitor.

J: A bad one? – the Greenwich Festival 6-Steinway concert at Eltham Palace years ago, a horrendous, long, difficult, fractious, uncomfortable and very unpleasant experience.

A good one? – York2’s Wigmore Hall recital at my 30th anniversary concert.

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

J: To read the score and study the context, not to impose ego or allow ignorance – only then you can allow yourself freedom with complete confidence.

F: To show the musical complexity of your repertoire and not patronise your audiences with over-simplified and obvious renditions.

What are you working on at the moment? 

J: Some enormous cello and piano sonatas for upcoming concerts – and the complete works of Rebecca Clarke and Ernest Bloch for cello.

F: Some tiny, utterly beautiful miniatures for a friend’s Soiree.

[F notes that J is keen to answer all of the questions as follows…]

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

Still strong and still giving concerts – and still enjoying doing it!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

J: Does it exist?  It sounds complacent.  Life should be, and is, a good mix.

Perfect Happiness? 

F chose just one question: A quiet mind – to love and be loved – an inextinguishable sense of humour.

York2John and Fiona York – four hands one piano

 

YORK2 has a reputation as the ‘piano duo with a difference’, gained through husband and wife team John and Fiona’s exploration of larger scale and contemporary scores, alongside the rich and familiar duet repertoire.  

Fiona and John have given countless concerts in the UK, on BBC Radio 3, in Australia, for CBC TV and TV Ontario Canada, on boats on the Great Lakes, at the Salzburg Festival, concertos at the Barbican Centre and at the South Bank in London. 

York2’s 2nd recording of ‘The Planets’ was released in 2010 on Nimbus, coupled with duet music by York Bowen. At that session, they also recorded, on a second disc, Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ and Ravel’s ‘Rapsodie Espagnole’.  This special repertoire was released in 2010 to critical appreciation and admiration. 

Their earlier recordings on the LondonHall label include minimalist music by contemporary Austrian composer Norbert Zehm, and their first recording (now deleted) of Holst’s ‘The Planets’ was recorded for Black Box in 2001. It was the world première recording of the composer’s own four-hands version and the disc also includes Holst’s complete piano solo works. 

As well as giving concerts, Fiona has been a long-standing teacher at several London schools.  She has worked in the junior departments of the Royal College, Trinity and Guildhall and this year marks her 15th year with the piano staff at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, London.  

John was Professor at Guildhall for 33 years and was Senior Music Head of Department at St. Paul’s Girls’ School where Holst was Director of Music for 20 years in the early 20th century.  During his time at the School, John discovered the long-forgotten four-hands score of The Planets in a cupboard in the room where it was composed, leading to York 2’s re-editing and recording of this great English score.  Tony Palmer, the well-known film director, included them in his Holst bio-pic ‘In the bleak midwinter.’ 

A highly successful and emotional recital of ‘The Planets’, the ‘Rite’ and ‘La Mer’ at London’s Wigmore Hall in 2004 marked the 30th anniversary of John’s début in that hall. Although York 2’s repertoire is so demanding, at only one day’s notice in 2010 John and Fiona gave a recital of ‘The Planets’ and ‘The Rite’ in a major festival in Madrid, to a full house, broadcast live on Spanish radio. 

The Independent and Financial Times reviewers were very enthusiastic –  

“York2 goes stratospheric!” – “the playing was enough to confirm the evening in its ambition, scope and sheer grit as something exceptional, duly exciting a prolonged ovation from its capacity audience”.

 

http://yorkpiano.co.uk