‘Tis the season for lists and Top 10’s, so here is my personal pick of my musical year. I have been fortunate to attend several concerts every month, hearing performances by established international artists, up and coming young talent, and concerts given by friends and colleagues. It has been a busy year in music for me, not least for the creation of the South London Concert Series, which launched in November 2013 with a sell-out concert featuring Brighton-based pianist Helen Burford. I am looking forward to more great music in 2014, including concerts by Piotr Anderszewski and François-Frédéric Guy at the Wigmore Hall. Some I will be reviewing, others I will simply be enjoying.

This list is not a “Top 10” and the concerts are not ranked in order of brilliance: I simply list my most memorable concerts of 2014.

Steven Osborne – Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus/Messiaen/Southbank Centre. If you were at this concert, you will know why it was so extraordinary, profound and moving. More here

Gyorgy and Marta Kurtag at Southbank Centre. An exquisite and touching concert, notable for its intimacy and domesticity. My review.

Yevgeny Sudbin, Wigmore Hall. A lunchtime recital in late January was my first experience of this justifiably acclaimed Russian pianist. My review

Quartet for the End of Time, Southbank Centre. Another concert in the Southbank Centre’s year-long fascinating Rest Is Noise festival, featuring the Capuçon brothers. Messiaen’s profound and spiritual work was paired with Shostakovich’s haunting elegy for victims of war, his second Piano Trio. Review

Marc-André Hamelin at Wigmore Hall. I was lucky enough to attend two concerts this year by one of my pianistic heroes, as Marc-André is currently enjoying a residency at Wigmore Hall. To meet Marc-André after his performance of the monumental Concord Sonata by Charles Ives was particularly special. My reviews here and here

Proms Chamber Music: Britten Up Close. A chamber prom at Cadogan Hall to celebrate the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth and featuring young soprano Ruby Hughes, with James Gilchrist and Imogen Cooper. Intimate and thoughtful. Review

Piotr Anderszewski at Queen Elizabeth Hall. A pianist I have long wanted to hear live, his concert in May did not disappoint. Beautifully elegant Bach, introspective Janacek and the romantic sweep of Schumann. A wonderful concert. More here

Sarah Beth Briggs at Craxton Studios. I include this not least for the wonderful venue, which was like stepping back into another time, and also for Sarah’s touching musical tribute to her teacher Denis Matthews. More here

Students’ Concert at Hampton Hill Playhouse. My concert round up would not be complete without a mention of my students’ concert in March, a lovely evening of shared music making and a celebration of my students’ achievements. Laurie gave a very witty performance of the second movement of John Cage’s 4’33”, but everyone played brilliantly, and we enjoyed a jolly party in the foyer of the theatre afterwards, thanks to the friendly, helpful staff at the Playhouse.

NPL Musical Society concerts. My local musical society, based at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, hosts a busy and varied season of concerts every year. Concerts are well-attended by a friendly and supportive audience, and this autumn I have enjoyed some wonderful concerts. My friend Helen Burford presented an eclectic programme of works by contemporary composers, including Martin Butler and David Rakowski, and paired Scarlatti with a work by Japanese composer Somei Satoh. Joseph Tong rounded off a fine lunchtime recital with a rollicking ‘Wanderer Fantasy’, and introduced me to the wonders of Sibelius’s piano repertoire. Nadav Hertzka played works by Tchaikovsky and premiered the arresting and ethereal ‘Five Breaths’ by Freya Waley-Cohen. Meanwhile, Madelaine Jones (presenting her post-grad audition programme) introduced us to the music of Louise Ferrenc, and Alice Pinto opened her recital with a Sonata by English composer and contemporary of Haydn, George Pinto. It has been great to enjoy so much quality chamber music just five minutes from my home.

Find all my reviews for Bachtrack here

It’s unusual to enter the auditorium of the QEH and see a small unassuming upright piano on the stage instead of the usual swaggering concert Steinway. In front of the piano, near the edge of the stage, flimsy sheets of  music were arranged on eight spindly stands. Overlooking the whole scene, a plaster bust of Beethoven, frowning down upon the proceedings.

A recital featuring the music of Hungarian composer and pedagogue George Kürtag is always going to be quirky, unusual and playful – and this concert was no exception.

Kurtag’s Hipartita for solo violin, a work composed for violinist Hiromi Kikuchi, who performed it at this concert. Combining the soloist’s name with the Baroque partita, a collection of pieces related to each other, the Hipartita contains movements dedicated to figures from Hungarian musical life, ancient Greece, Hungarian folk dances, including the Czardas, and even J S Bach himself. A curious work full of wails and squawks, skittish scurryings and glissandi, it was strangely haunting and witty all at once, and was presented with intense concentration and an aching beauty by Hiromi Kikuchi. At the end of the performance, Hiromi gestured into the audience, and after a pause György Kurtág himself, frail but smiling broadly, tottered onto the stage to receive applause alongside the soloist.

After the interval the piano had been shifted to centre stage, a duet bench set before it and another selection of flimsy pages on the music stand. Kurtág and his wife Márta walked slowly onto the stage, gently supporting one another. They were going to perform and selection of short pieces from Kurtág’s Játékok (Games), a series of works for children and beginner pianists, for which the model was Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. In Játékok, the focus is on movement and gestures rather than accuracy, thus drawing on the educational philosophy of Rudolph Steiner. These charming and idiosyncratic miniatures were interspersed with Kurtág’s own transcriptions of works by Bach, for four hands, and all played with great delicacy of tone and touch.

Here is the scene: Gyõrgy seated at the piano, Márta at his side quietly removing the pages, and joining him in duets of his own music and his Bach transcriptions, the practice pedal permanently depressed so that the sounds emerging from the piano are soft, gentle and intimate. Enhanced only slightly by amplification, the sound of the piano is domestic, homely. The Kurtágs lean towards one another as they play or mirror one another’s gestures, reaching across each other at the keyboard; sometimes they look tenderly at each other. It is as if we are peeping in on an afternoon of private music-making in their home.

This all-too brief yet exquisite and unassuming recital was met with a standing ovation, people rising to their feet not to applaud greatness but rather to share in the emotional spell this miniature music and its frail and deeply sensitive performers had cast upon us all. Many people were in tears, overcome with an emotion that was impossible to describe.

John Gilhooly took to the stage to present Maestro Kurtág with the RPS Gold Medal, in the presence of Beethoven (who himself was awarded the gold medal). In response to Gilhooly’s eulogy, Gyorgy Kurtág, as quietly-spoken as his music, said “I am not a man of words”, and then returned to the piano to play Mozart’s G major Variations with Márta.

An extraordinary and rare afternoon of music, curiously subversive by dint of the fact that it went against the grain of the traditional concert, and one many of us are unlikely to experience again.

(photo credit: Felix Broede)

Igor Levit’s star is rising fast: a BBC New Generation Artist, an exclusive recording deal with Sony Classics, and a debut CD of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas have already brought this 26-year-old pianist attention and acclaim, and on Tuesday evening he opened the 2013/14 International Piano Series at London’s Southbank Centre with a performance of Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas to a full house.

Read my full review here

I purchased my ticket to hear Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski almost a year ago, to avoid disappointment: he is a pianist I’ve long wanted to hear live, in particular after seeing ‘Unquiet Traveller’, the wonderful and quirky film about him by Bruno Monsaingeon. In it, Anderszewski revealed himself to be a sensitive, thoughtful and original musician, and his comments about the need to “sing to Mozart” struck a special chord (forgive the pun!) with me as I was, at the time of seeing the film, involved the final work on Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511 for my diploma, a work full of arias and operatic statements, with an opening melody that looks forward to Chopin at his most intimate.

Anderszewski is a famously perfectionist musician (he walked off the stage during the semi-finals of the Leeds Piano Competition in 1990 because he wasn’t happy with his playing) and is one of the few musicians I’ve encountered in interview to talk openly about performance anxiety and the loneliness of the concert pianist (more here). But there was no sense of a precious personality at work when he strode onto the stage at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Thursday night, to a full house, and launched into a sprightly and colourful ‘Allemande’ of Bach’s French Suite No. 5, its melody streaming forth. Bach’s French Suites are more intimate than the English Suites, and Anderszewski offered a persuasive and thoughtful account, particularly in the exquisitely measured Sarabande and the stately Loure. The faster movements were dancing, witty and playful.

Despite being called English Suites, there is nothing especially English about them: they are essentially French in the dances featured in them, and are ‘player’s music’ rather than concert pieces. Anderszewski brought the grandiose opening ‘Prelude’ to life with a strong sense of the orchestral textures and fugal elements, and the following movements were elegantly presented. It was in the ‘Sarabande’, a movement which fully exploits the dark hues and gravity of G minor, that Anderszewski’s exquisite control, sensitivity and beauty of sound really came to the fore. He is also unafraid of exploiting the possibilities of the modern piano to the full, including the use of the pedal to create rich, warm sounds and shimmering pools of colour, and to highlight the melodic aspects of the movements. A marked contrast to the rather more mannered, traditional interpretations of Bach’s keyboard music.

After the interval, the less well-known Book 2 of Janacek’s On An Overgrown Path, a suite in five movements written at a time when the composer was coming to terms with the untimely death of his daughter Olga. These intensely introspective movements are emotionally searing and highly personal, imbued with references to Moravian folk music and harmonic fragments akin to Debussy’s soundworld.

It was in these pieces that Anderszewski’s ability to move from the most delicately nuanced pianissimos to rich, full fortes was most evident, and the subtleties and shifting moods of these poignant works were highlighted with great sensitivity and insight.

If we were wondering whether Anderszewski could also offer passion and sweeping virtuosity, without compromising his beautiful quality of sound, we were left in no doubt after his performance of Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major, Op 17, a work the composer described as “a profound lament” for his wife, Clara. It was a grandiose, declamatory and heartfelt close to a superb evening of piano playing of the highest order.

After several curtain calls, Anderszewski returned the piano and announced he would play the French Suite again. The audience laughed, a little uncertainly, perhaps not sure that he meant this, but by the time he reached the Sarabande, it was quite obvious he intended to complete the entire suite. It is rare to be given such a generous encore: indeed, I could have happily listened to Piotr Anderszewski playing Bach all night, such was the allure of his sound, understanding and musical sensitivity.

Piotr Anderszewki – Unquiet Traveller. More about the film by Bruno Monsaingeon here

Olivier Messiaen in 1930

The fascinating Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre has now reached its mid-point, with the focus on music created out of oppression and war. In Friday night’s chamber concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall two pieces written in the most straitened circumstances during the Second World War were presented: Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio, a haunting lament for the tragic victims of the war and conflict in general, and Messiaen’s extraordinary Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”), composed and premièred in a German prisoner of war camp. The works were performed by world-renowned musicians – French brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon (violin and cello respectively), Denis Kozhukhin (piano) and Jörg Widmann (clarinet). They offered a highly emotional, profound and concentrated performance which demonstrated their commitment to and understanding of this difficult, meaningful repertoire.

Read my full review here

(photo: Richard Avedon)

I am a great admirer of Japanese pianist, Mitsuko Uchida. Not just her exquisite touch, and sensitivity to the score, but also her ability to bring intimacy even to the biggest performance spaces – as she did in her concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 7 March, part of the Southbank Centre’s excellent International Piano Series.

Read my review of her magical performance of Bach, Schoenberg and Schumann here