Paul Badura-Skoda (Photo @ DR)
Saturday 10th May, 2014 – St John’s, Smith Square, London
Chopin
Waltzes – A minor, Op.34/2, C sharp minor, Op.64/2, D flat, Op.64/1; Nocturne, op. posth., Four Mazurkas, op. 30, Barcarolle, op. 60
Schubert
Impromptu in B-flat D935 No. 3 ‘Rosamunde Variations’

Sonata in B-flat D960

The words “great” and “world class” are all too frequently bandied about in reviews and articles about musicians (and artists and writers too). But how does one truly define these over-used descriptions? If “greatness” comes from a life spent living with, and performing and writing about, some of the finest music ever written, forming a profound relationship with it and its composers, understanding with intimate detail its structures and nuances, then Paul Badura-Skoda is a living example of this.

Paul Badura-Skoda is a pianist I have long wanted to hear live. I was aware of him more as a respected pedagogue, writer on music and editor of works by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin and others. My teacher frequently refers to him, I have met pianists who have studied with him, and I have listened to some of his recordings (including his latest in which he plays Schubert’s final sonata on three different pianos) with interest and curiosity.

His concert at St John’s Smith Square was an opportunity for me and my companion for the evening (a fellow pianist) to share a unique musical experience – and one which will resonate with us for a long time to come. To attempt to “review” the playing, the pianism, the musical understanding and insight of such a master would be churlish.

Badura-Skoda created a special and intimate soundworld and atmosphere from the opening notes of the bittersweet A minor Waltz to the life-affirming closing cadence of Schubert’s final Piano Sonata, a place where generosity of spirit and good humour ruled, a place of great intimacy, as if we had been invited into his own musical salon for the evening. Of course, Paul Badura-Skoda is steeped in that particular European tradition of music-making, and his teacher, Edwin Fischer, connects him to an earlier golden age of music making and culture.

Despite his age (86), Badura-Skoda cuts a sprightly figure (compare his twinkling eyes and brisk gait with the frailer Maurizio Pollini at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in April, who is more than 10 years Badura-Skoda’s junior) and displayed an obvious pleasure in being at St John’s Smith Square. And if there were some smeared notes and uncertain rhythms, the overall effect was of a musician who has lived with this music for many years and whose knowledge and understanding allowed the music to speak for itself, free of ego and unnecessary gestures.

Before the Sonata in B flat, D960, Paul Badura-Skoda said a few words about the piece, how he regarded it as Schubert’s “farewell” (it was completed less than two months before the composer’s death in 1828), and how the sublime opening theme suggests the words of a hymn or prayer. The first movement had a spacious serenity in the main theme, and the range of colours and nuances which Badura-Skoda brought to the music shone a new light on a familiar work for me: for example, the bass trills were voiced differently each time which gave them a greater resonance and sense of foreboding, and the exposition repeat was observed. The slow movement’s ominous tread was relieved by a middle section of great warmth. The third movement bubbled with all the exuberance of a mountain stream, the darker Trio hardly interrupting the mood, while the finale had drive and energy coupled with wit and humour, despite one or two uneven moments. This was an engaging and entirely satisfying performance, which was met, deservedly, in my opinion, with a standing ovation.

Marc-André Hamelin, (image credit: Fran Kaufman)
Marc-André Hamelin, (image credit: Fran Kaufman)

Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin has an unerring ability to tackle anything the piano repertoire can throw at him: the craggy, disparate edifice of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX, Villa-Lobos’ savage Rudepoema, the mannered classicism of Haydn, and the sweeping romanticism of Liszt. His latest concert, part of his residency at Wigmore Hall in 2013/14, combined peerless technical mastery, cool perfection, pristine beauty and profound musical understanding in a quartet of works by Medtner, Janáček, Ravel and Hamelin himself, with the London première of his own composition. The programme traced a darkly lit narrative from the brooding opening bars of Hamelin’s atmospheric Barcarolle, through the sprawling musical landscapes of Medtner’s Night Wind piano sonata in E minor, inspired by a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, to the poignant intimacy of Janacek’s On an Overgrown Path and the strange night-time fantasies of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.

Read my full review here

I can think of few better ways to spend a Monday lunchtime than enjoying piano music in a beautiful setting such as the Wren church of St James’s, Piccadilly. It was doubly pleasing to escape the cold October rain on this particular Monday.

St James’s Piccadilly hosts regular lunchtime recitals, mostly featuring up-and-coming and emerging artists. There is no entrance charge, though audience members are invited to make a donation afterwards to enable the church to continue to host these concerts.

A multi-award winning graduate of the Royal College of Music, pianist Amit Yahav is now pursuing a career as a performing artist as well as undertaking doctoral studies into the music of Chopin, at the RCM. He has received particular praise for his performances of Mozart, Chopin, Schumann and Liszt.

Amit opened his recital with Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor BWV 826. The Partitas were the last set of keyboard works Bach composed, and are the most technically demanding of all his keyboard suites. They were originally published separately, and later collected into a single volume, known as the Clavier-Übung I (Keyboard Practice), the title suggesting that Bach regarded these as technical works for rather than music for performance. In fact, like the French and English Suites, the Partitas are extremely satisfying, enjoyable and varied works, for both performer and listener.

The C minor Partita opens with grand orchestral statements before moving into more fluid territory, to which Amit brought great clarity of articulation, despite the rather echoey acoustic in the church, and the large voice of the Fazioli grand piano. The subsequent movements were shapely, Amit always sensitive to the melodic lines and “voices” so crucial to Bach’s music. The Courante, Rondeaux and Capriccio were sprightly, imbued with wit, despite the minor key.

The Schumann Humoresque Opus 20 might seem a strange pairing with Bach’s mannered arabesques, but in fact both pieces worked well together as a programme. The Humoresque shares a number of features with the Partita, most notably its changes of mood and tempo through the individual movements. The work consists of seven movements, to be played attaca one after another. Amit was adept at neatly capturing the mercurial wit and humour of Schumann’s writing, highlighting Schumann’s dual musical personalities: episodes of warm lyricism and emotional depth were contrasted with masterly double-octave passages, nimble tempos, and full-toned fortissimos. This was an extremely enjoyable concert, the music performed with finesse, sensitivity, and obvious commitment by this young artist.

Details of future performances by Amit Yahav can be found on his website

Meet the Artist….,.Amit Yahav