03HOUGH1_SPAN-jumbo-v2What can I write about Stephen Hough’s startling, stunning concert at the Festival Hall last night?

During the second half, between the miniatures by Debussy and Beethoven’s elemental Appassionata Sonata (Op 57), I leaned across to my concert companion and muttered that this concert seemed to be all about spontaneity and improvisation, the short works by Debussy which opened both halves of the concert, in themselves, and in Hough’s skillful hands, improvisatory in character, revealing the same qualities in the works by Schumann and Beethoven. One had the sense of meticulous preparation – and Stephen has talked before in interviews and articles about practising of the need to be “a perfectionist in the practise room” so that one can be “a bohemian” on stage – which enabled him to step back from the music and set it free.

It was an unusual programme. Other pianists may not have been able to pull it off so convincingly, and certainly opening with Debussy’s much-loved Claire de Lune from the Suite Bergamasque was potentially risky. The piece is so well-known, so prone to clichéd readings – yet Hough’s sensitive, unfussy shaping of this work saved it from saccharine sentimentality, and the delicacy of his sound and touch encouraged concentrated listening while also creating a wonderful sense of intimacy in the vastness of the RFH. It was as if we were in Debussy’s drawing room, gathered around his upright piano. And as Stephen said in the pre-concert talk, in the moments of the concert, we can “all be friends”, forgetting our differences of opinion or politics, joined in the shared pleasure of music.

In the programme notes, Stephen Hough explained that his choice of repertoire highlighted the very different approaches the three composers took to writing for the piano. While Debussy’s works (Clair de Lune, the two books of Images and the Prelude La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune) are “sensual paintings with mystical suggestions” [SH] (and even without the titles, their distinctive soundworld immediately conjures up potent, perfumed images in the listener’s mind), the two works by German composers are abstract and tightly structured with clear musical architecture.

And so while Debussy was light (feathery, but never fluffy) and delicately hued, the textures of Schumann’s Fantasie in C seemed all the richer in comparison, the composer’s passion for Clara all there in every note and phrase (Schumann often wears his heart on his sleeve), balanced by lyricism and tenderness, particularly in the glorious closing movement which seemed to evolve and expand there and then.

Similarly, the Beethoven felt wrought before our very eyes and ears, the opening measures creeping out of the mysterious darkness of the lower registers into something resembling light, if only briefly, the work fantasy-like in its range of ideas and striking contrasts. The outer movements were fraught with emotion, urgent and agitated, the middle movement providing a calm respite before the finale was unleashed upon us with, its feverish intensity all the more terrifying for the restrained tempo: this was music on the edge of chaos.

Stephen returned to Schumann for the first encore, one of the Symphonic Etudes which was rejected by the composer – a brief few moments of meltingly beautiful filigree traceries. And a Chopin nocturne to close this exceptional evening.

 

 

Another music-filled year, many hits, a few misses, some new discoveries – musicians, venues, repertoire and people – and a couple of memorable performances of my own, solo and with colleagues…..

January

Pavel Kolesnikov (Wigmore Hall) – What impressed me in Pavel Kolesnikov’s performance was his clarity, control, lightness of touch and musical understanding which revealed the hidden nuances and subtle embroideries in Debussy’s writing. His elegant, sensitive pianism created a concert which was highly engaging and deeply intimate. Review here

The Pink Singers (Cadogan Hall) – a gloriously uplifting evening of fine singing and the premiere of a piece for choir written by a colleague of mine.

Deyan Sudjic (Wigmore Hall) – This was the pianist who asked the Washington Post to remove what he felt was an unfavourable review, and I admit I was curious to hear this pianist after reading about this furore….. Review here

Warren Mailley-Smith (St John’s Smith Square) – A concert in Warren’s series exploring Chopin’s complete piano music.

February

Steven Osborne (St John’s Smith Square) – The first of two wonderful concerts by this exceptional pianist which I enjoyed in 2016. Review here

Piotr Anderszewski (Wigmore Hall) – Always a pleasure to hear this thoughtful and sensitive pianist – and an added pleasure was meeting him briefly after the concert. Review here

Nikolai Demidenko (Cadogan Hall) – Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1. Review here

Mark Swartzentruber (Kings Place) – music by Bach, Ravel and Schubert (D959- one of the may performances of this work which I have been studying)

Divine Fire – The Story of Chopin and Sand told in music and words, performed by Viv McLean (piano) and Susan Porrett (narrator). More about this 7 Star Arts mixed media concert here

Denis Kozhukin (Wigmore Hall) – “sweet sonorities and ravishingly spacious phrases, creating a sense of relaxed ecstasy” Review here

March

Akhenaten (ENO/Coliseum) – an enthralling new production of Philip Glass’s opera. Review here

Leif Ove Andsnes & Friends (Dulwich Picture Gallery) – an engaging and varied concert of music by Nordic composers to coincide with an exhibition of paintings by Nikolai Astrup. Review here

Francoise-Green Duo (St John’s Smith Square) – part of the FG Duo’s Viennese Salon residency, appropriately as I flew to Vienna the day after this concert. Review here

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Vienna Konzerthaus) – I couldn’t go to Vienna and not go to a concert! A romantic and uplifting performance of Beethoven’s 5th Concerto by PLA.

Nazrin Rashidova (violin) & Daniel Grimwood (piano) (St James’s Piccadilly) – lovely mixed programme of music by Mozart and Poulenc, plus Daniel’s Nocturne, which was, for me, redolent of Liszt and Ravel. Beautiful colourful playing by Nazrin, sensitively accompanied by Daniel. I was lucky enough to hear this fine duo again in November in Wimbledon.

Peter Jablonski (Cadogan Square) – Ravel’s glorious G major Piano Concerto and Gershwin’s exuberant hommage to New York, Rhapsody in Blue, performed by a pianist whom I had the pleasure to meet and interview shortly before the concert.

Beethoven Choral Fantasy Op 80 & Brahms German Requiem – a wonderful performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy by my friend Elspeth Wyllie, followed by an absorbing German Requiem, at St Luke’s Balham

St John Passion/Bach (SJSS) -Polyphony and the OAE, conducted by Stephen Layton. A stunning and very moving performance of Bach’s greatest Passion, on Good Friday.

April

Andras Schiff, The Final Sonatas (Wigmore Hall) – the penultimate piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven & Schubert. My first encounter with Andras Schiff live in concert. Review here

Iphigénie en Tauride (Drayton Arms Theatre) – startling and immediate “opera in a pub”, by Euphonia Opera Co. Review here

St John Passion/Bach (SJSS) -Polyphony and the OAE, conducted by Stephen Layton. A stunning and very moving performance of Bach’s

Rolf Hind (Wigmore Hall) – unusual and sometimes challenging contemporary music for piano by the pianist with the deepest, most elegant bow in London 🙂

Pierre-Laurent Aimard/Vingt Regards (Milton Court) – my first visit to Milton Court at Guildhall. A remarkable concert in a fine acoustic. Review here

May

The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise with Ian Bostridge (Barbican Theatre) – a wonderfully quirky yet sensitive and highly atmospheric reworking of Schubert’s late great song cycle. Review here

Concert for North-West Music Trust (Altrincham) – me at the piano in this instance, playing music by Mendelssohn, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Schubert (D959). My first “proper” concert of my fellowship diploma programme to a very friendly audience and lovely welcoming hosts.

BBC Young Musician Final – an inspiring and uplifting final to the 2016 BBC Young Musician Competition. Review here

Richard Goode – Schubert’s Last Three Sonatas (Royal Festival Hall) – a perfect evening of beautiful piano playing. The finest reading of the D959 for me….. More here

Steven Osborne/The Music of Silence (Milton Court) – back to Milton Court for music by George Crumb and Morton Feldman. Review here

June

The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre) – a delightfully dirty, louche, foul-mouthed and witty production with fine performances by Roy Kinnear and Haydn Gwynne

Piano 4-hands at Conchord Festival (St Mary’s Twickenham) – a new local music festival in Twickenham. Review here

July

Daniel Grimwood/Markson Pianos Series – Sonatas by Schubert, including the great G major, D894, performed on a magnificent Bosendorfer piano by a pianist who really understands this repertoire

August

Louis Lortie/Chamber Prom (Cadogan Hall) – my first live encounter with this pianist whose programme spoke of Italian holidays and sunshine. Review here

Scenes from the End (Camden Peoples Theatre) – one-woman opera with Heloise Werner. Review here

The Makropoulos Case/Proms

September

Proms in the Car Park – a very unusual concert experience: music by Steve Reich performed in a disused multi-storey carpark in Peckham. Review here

Music Marathon (St John’s SMith Square) – I was delighted to have the chance to perform at SJSS, albeit for 15 minutes (!) as part of the music marathon for London Open House weekend. Great to hear and meet other pianists and I made new friends too!

Nick van Bloss (Wigmore Hall) – intense and athletic Beethoven, and lovely to meet Nick in person afterwards

Igor Levit/Beethoven (Wigmore Hall) – the launch of Levit’s Beethoven sonatas cycle. Review here

October

Steven Isserlis & Olli Mustonen (Wigmore Hall) – a chance to catch up with a friend who used to be my most regular concert companion (now resident in Spain).

Liszt’s B minor Sonata – lecture & concert (Kings Place). An insightful and revealing talk by Alfred Brendel followed by a performance of a sonata which I have never liked! Review here

Two-Piano Extravaganza (Kings Place) – Part of the inaugural London Piano Festival, this concert was a feast of high-class pianism. Review here

Don Giovanni (ENO/Coliseum) – a splendidly raunchy production, made even better by our Secret Seats in the front row of the Dress Circle, plus interval champagne!

Quartet for the End of Time (SJSS) – a privilege to turn the pages for my friend the pianist Daniel Grimwood, and to enjoy the pianist’s perspective of this extraordinary work. Profound and moving.

Dina Duisen and Friends (1901 Arts Club) – music for piano and clarinet at my favourite small venue

The Prince Concert with Stephen Hough (Wigmore Hall) – atmospheric and varied songs by Stephen Hough, including the premiere of his ‘Dappled Things’. Review here

November

Steve Reich (Barbican Hall) – Electric Counterpoint amongst other minimalist wonders

Lulu (ENO) – a visually stunning new production by William Kentridge

Winterreise in English (Wigmore Hall) – revelatory performance by Roderick Williams and Christopher Glynn, the English translation bringing a startling immediacy to the narrative of Schubert’s song cycle.

December

Concert for SPIN/Specialists in Pain International (St John’s Waterloo) – I performed in a fundraising concert with a pianist colleague and soprano Anna Cavaliero. A really wonderful evening of shared music making (www.spiners.org)

Melvyn Tan at Spitalfields Music (St Leonard’s Spitalfields) – fine pianism and three premieres. Review here

Helen Burford (St Nicholas, Brighton) – a typically eclectic and imaginative concert of “global exotica” including a Tarantella for Toy Piano by Stephen Montague. Atmospheric,  quirky and elegantly presented

Russian Winter Weekend Concert (Dorich House, Kingston) – Russian music arranged for flute and harp with Alena Lugobvkina (flute) and Anne Denholm (harp) and a chance to explore the Art Deco home of artist Dora Gordine. A delightful evening

In addition, I have also enjoyed….

Discovering the organ at St John’s Smith Square (more here)

Some fine concerts at my local music society by performers including Ben Socrates, Joseph Tong, Peter Murdock Saint and Jennifer Heslop, Jelena Makarova, amongst many others

The Magic Flute (directed by Simon Burney) at ENO. Magical, quirky and beguiling.

Fine performances at London Piano Meetup Group events by people who are not professional musicians but for whom the piano is a passion, an obsession and more….

Brave (and occasionally tearful!) performances by adult amateur pianists at my workshop at the 1901 Arts Club on 3 December

Accompanying one of my students who played Massenet’s ‘Meditation’ from Thaïs in a special retirement mass for her headmistress, and accompanying a friend at her Grade 5 French Horn exam (which she passed with distinction!).

Making new friends via social media who are proving enjoyable and stimulating concert companions.

The launch of the Music into Words project which explores writing about classical music today – next event is on 12 February 2017 with a great line-up of speakers (book tickets)

And I am very much lo0king forward to 2017 when I will hear

Martha Argerich (for the first time)

Daniil Trifonov

Anna Tsybuleva (winner of the Leeds Piano Competition)

Boris Berezovsky

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

And no doubt much more besides…..

 

 

 

 

Richard Goode plays Schubert’s last three piano sonatas at Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 25th May 2016

“….the most delicate nuance, significance everywhere, the keenest expression of the particular, and finally the whole suffused with a romanticism…..And the heavenly length…..”

SchubertThis quote from Schumann actually refers to Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony, but the phrase “heavenly length” is often used in relation to Schubert’s late piano sonatas. The final triptych, drafted in the spring of 1828 and completed a few months before Schubert’s death in the autumn of the same year (extant manuscripts suggest a preliminary sketch and then a full final version), are big works, each with four movements, meticulously structured with cyclic motifs running through each individual sonata and the set as a whole, revealing Schubert’s innate sense of musical geometry and bold treatment of the traditional sonata form. These are works in which one sees the entire arc of the work mapped at the very beginning, neatly concluded at the close of the finale, and it takes a particular performer to tackle both this musical architecture and the sonatas’ length.

Some pianists, and scholars, feel these sonatas can be legitimately “shortened” by omitting the exposition repeat in the first movement. In the C minor (D958) and A major (D959) sonatas, this repeat adds only c5 minutes to the length, while in the final sonata in B flat (D960) observing the repeat creates a first movement of c20 minutes, which is as long as an entire early to mid-period Beethoven sonata. Personally, I always feel somewhat cheated myself, and on behalf of the composer, if the exposition repeat is omitted in performance or on a recording. But I suspect some pianists omit the repeats because they feel the audience cannot cope with such a long programme, or perhaps because the performer wants to be out of the hall and heading home before the pubs close. This misjudges audiences’ expectations, in my opinion. Those of us who choose to hear Schubert’s last three piano sonatas in concert are prepared for a long evening – that is the great pleasure of this music when played well.

richard-goode-2013-steve-riskind-450sq
(photo: Steve Riskind)
I have enjoyed Richard Goode’s recordings of Schubert’s  piano sonatas and his recording of the penultimate sonata, D959, remains my benchmark. Thus I went to his concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall (part of the International Piano Series) with a great deal of excitement and anticipation, helped in no small part by the fact that I met a pianist friend there who like me is very fond of Schubert’s piano music.

Occasionally, very occasionally, I go to a concert where from the opening notes I can tell it will be a perfect evening. This year there have already been a few (Pavel Kolesnikov playing Debussy Preludes at Wigmore Hall, Steven Osborne at St John’s Smith Square, Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards’ at Milton Court); these really are the “wow” moments of my concert-going life, performances so outstanding, exhilarating, spell-binding, magical and above all memorable, that to write a review of the event afterwards has felt like a heavy task because I could never put into words exactly why the concert was so wonderful. I deliberately chose not to review Richard Goode’s concert for Bachtrack.com (and yet here I am writing about it now) because I wanted to immerse myself in the sound, to listen to every note, every idea, every nuance, every shading and colour. I didn’t want to have to get up the next morning, with the memory of the music still resonating in my mind and imagination, and “explain” the concert in a review.

I’m not going to describe each sonata in detail – there will be other reviews no doubt for that. In fact, what follows is a series of responses to what I heard, notes I made in the programme during the concert, and thoughts shared between myself and my concert companion.

Heavenly length

Richard Goode observed all the exposition repeats, yet at no point did the sonatas feel long. Some pianists feel a need to muck around with the pulse and rhythm in Schubert in an attempt to highlight aspects such as the rapid emotional voltes faces or extraordinary harmonic shifts which colour Schubert’s music. In fact, by maintaining a clear sense of pulse and rhythmic vitality the longer first and final movements moved forward apace, yet never hurrying nor pushing the tempi, and the works actually felt short, even with all exposition repeats intact. In all three sonatas, the finales were vibrant and colourful – in the D958 the tarantella became a witty dance, in the D959 and D960 one felt Schubert’s urge to say more, so much more, that the ideas were still tumbling from his mind and pen.

Schubert’s soundworld

Goode can do Beethovenian robustness and muscularity when required (the C minor Sonata contains a number of obvious “hommages” to Beethoven, while the references are more subtle in the D959 and D960), but he has a keen sense of the ethereal qualities of Schubert’s writing too. Thus his fortes and fortissimos were rich and orchestral, never strident, while the softest end of the dynamic range was delicate yet still focused. At times the sound shone or glowed from within, thanks to Goode’s superlative clarity of tone, touch and articulation. Schubert’s magical and daring harmonic shifts were highlighted, Goode lingering over them briefly before moving on to the next one, so that they became fleeting and elusive rather than obvious.

Simple but never simplistic

There’s an awful lot of baggage, theorising and debate surrounding Schubert’s late music, in particular the extraordinary Andantino of the D959, a slow movement quite unlike anything else Schubert wrote. That Schubert was dying of syphilis and the debilitating side-effects of the cure is known and documented; likewise that he was living in a city ravaged by war and social upheaval. Whether these sonatas are his response to his illness or his social situation, or are his “last words”, a farewell, a valediction, is open to debate, but I get frustrated by pianists who try to read too much into the music and allow their interpretations to be overly psychological, clouded by the psychobabble. Goode’s approach to this music is straightforward – he gives us what is on the page but what we hear is enriched by his long association with this music and his evident understanding of it.

Some pianists take the Andantino at Adagio and turn it into a funeral dirge. Goode opted for a lilting tempo to highlight the simple melancholic folksong qualities of the opening melody. The middle section opened like a Bachian fantasy, increasingly interrupted by the frenetic trills and triplets before the full savagery was unleashed. In the slow movement of the D960, the tempo was restrained, but it never dragged. The result was a movement of extreme concentration and contemplation whose atmosphere shrank the vastness of the Royal Festival Hall to the intimacy of Schubert’s salon. Compare this to the expansiveness and breadth of the first movement which unfolded like a great river plotting its final course.

This for me was an example of how Schubert’s piano music should be played: unfussy (yet with a clear understanding of the importance of the music’s bold structures and harmonic landscape), witty, robust, melancholy, joyful, intimate and expansive. Richard Goode returns to the Festival Hall in 2017 in a programme of Beethoven – a concert I greatly look forward to.

Just to add that Goode played the entire programme from the score, with a page-turner (his wife in fact): at no point did this detract from his ability to communicate this wonderful music.

 

 

© Dario Acosta Photography / DG

He looks like he should still be at school, yet he plays with the commanding presence, exceptional technical facility and deep commitment a professional artist thrice his years would envy. He’s slight, floppy haired, yet he can bring power and richness to the boldest fortissimo passages, while his pianissimos are delicate whispers. Welcome to the world of Daniil Trifonov.

Superlatives quickly become redundant when attempting to describe the pianistic feats of this young artist, winner in 2011 of both the Tchaikovsky and Rubenstein Competitions, and still only 23. He’s already got a clutch of recordings under his belt, and is in demand around the world. His London concert marked his Royal Festival Hall debut (he has already played at the Wigmore and Queen Elizabeth Halls), and it was therefore a pity that due to an unfortunate, and probably accidental, concert clash with Behzod Abduraimov’s Wigmore Hall recital, the Festival Hall was not as full-to-bursting as it might have been for this eagerly-anticipated debut.

Read my full review here

For the past three weeks, a very special celebration has been taking place at the Royal Festival Hall, on London’s Southbank. The focus on this celebration is a huge structure of wood, metal, pipes, stops, pedals and keys: it is the Festival Hall’s great organ.

The organ was first heard on 24th March 1954. Days before the opening of the then almost brand new Royal Festival Hall, the organ attracted some controversy in the pages of newspapers and music journals. Described as the “tax-payer’s organ” by the music critic of The Times, the organ was considered by some, in those frugal post-war years, to be unnecessarily extravagant. In 2005 the organ was removed from the hall as part of the refurbishment of the venue and one-third of it was reinstalled when the hall re-opened in 2007. Now, sixty years after its inauguration, the organ is restored to its full glory and can be heard and enjoyed once again.

Usually when one attends concerts at the Festival Hall, the organ is hidden away in its huge “wardrobe” behind the choir stalls, and if one didn’t know it was there, one might be none the wiser. As I tend to visit the Festival Hall only for piano recitals, where the focus is on the pianist seated at a gleaming full-size concert Steinway occupying the middle of the stage, it was therefore rather wonderful to enter the hall for a concert where the stage was completely bare.

This was the final concert in a series of events to celebrate the organ’s 60th birthday and its extensive restoration. Entitled ‘Darkness & Light’, the concert was a collaborative project between Belgian organist Bernard Fouccroulle and Australian video artist Lynette Wallworth who between them have created a programme which seeks to transcend the traditional organ recital by combining 350 years of organ music from Buxtehude to present day with a video installation. Displayed on twin giant screens hung before the organ, the installation presented images of Australian landscapes, the moon, clouds, trees, waters, train-lines and trains, factory smoke stacks, city panoramas, and birds. The project was named after Light and darkness (or “Hell und Dunkel”), a composition by the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, which was included in the programme, and was part of a series of special commissions to celebrate the return of the organ to the Southbank Centre.

In talking about the project, Bernard Fouccroulle says, “In organ music, darkness and light can easily be associated with visual equivalents, but they also refer to obvious theological concepts. Our purpose was to invite the spectator to listen to this music in a new way, and to enrich the music with a visual counterpoint. I very much believe that organ music can be brought into a new life in our time.“ (source: http://www.forma.org.uk)

The programme was an absorbing and at times highly arresting and emotional mixture of music, from Toshio Hosokawa’s atmospheric opening ‘Cloudscape’ to the refined, processional elegance of two Buxtehude Chorale Preludes, and the ecstatic outpourings of Olivier Messiaen’s Messe de la Pentecôte. The entire range of the instrument was explored, offering some interesting insights into its versatility and sonic range. The works were presented in a continuous stream, uninterrupted by applause which made for a deeply involving musical experience. It was a pity that the images in the video installation seemed from the outset to be rather derivative and at times almost clichéd, and, to my mind, added little to the concert. Indeed, at times the images were overly distracting: music has a habit of conjuring very personal images and associations in the minds of the listeners, and to have such visual cues imposed upon one by someone else was not always totally convincing. See an extract from ‘Darkess & Light’ here:

That said, the concert was wonderful, the music extraordinary, profound and uplifting, and it was an absolute treat to hear the Royal Festival Hall organ in all its magnificence.

Maurizio Pollini (© Cosimo Filippini)
Maurizio Pollini (© Cosimo Filippini)

How does one define “greatness” in a pianist? Is it the willingness to tackle a broad sweep of repertoire from Baroque to present-day? Profound musicality and penetrating insights, founded on pristine technique? A fearless approach to risk-taking in live concerts? Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini is the sum of these parts – and much more – as his recent concerts in London have demonstrated. Here is an artist who is equally at home in the elegance of Bach, the intimacy of Chopin’s miniatures and the spiky modernism of Pierre Boulez, always bringing supreme pianism and fresh insights to his performances.

For his second International Piano Series concert at a packed Royal Festival Hall, Pollini trod a more traditional path in an all-Beethoven programme. Traditional, but also ambitious: to perform three of the most well-known, revered and technically demanding of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas would be a challenge for any artist. For a man of seventy-two (and he looks older and frailer) this was a monumental programme, which scaled the highest Himalayan peaks of pianism…..

Read my full review here http://bachtrack.com/review-maurizio-pollini-beethoven-apr-2014