Tag Archives: St John’s Smith Square

Breathtaking pianism: Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich at St John’s Smith

Brahms and Messiaen do not immediately strike one as natural concert programme companions: Brahms teems with polyphony and darkness while Messiaen is about light, timbre, vertical chords, vibrant colour – indeed Messiaen hated Brahms, declaring that “it’s always raining” in Brahms’ music.

But unlikely or daring juxtapositions can create interesting and unexpected contrasts and connections, as one work shines a new light on another, enriching both listener and performer’s experience – and this was certainly my take on this remarkable concert by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich at St John’s Smith Square which combined Brahms’ Sonata in F minor, Op 34b with Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen.

If there are connections to be made between the music that made up this large-scale programme it is that both works are mighty musical edifices, two great mountains which transcend mere notes on the page and which demonstrate each composer’s wish to remain in long moments of emotional distress, relaxation or ecstasy. Both works also display a high level of perfectionism in their structures and organisation, replete with many details, motifs and musical pathways which could easily become blurred in a lesser performance.

Read my full review here

 

(picture credit Neda Navaee)

 

I Musicanti at St John’s Smith Square

I Musicanti, an ensemble formed in 2013 by double bass player Leon Bosch (formerly principal double bass with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields Orchestra), launched their triptych of concerts at St John’s Smith Square with an afternoon recital featuring the world premiere of a new work by South African composer Matthijs van Dijk as the centrepiece. This arresting piece was bookended by Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat, K493 and Schubert’s evergreen Quintet in A D667, the ‘Trout’.

I Musicanti includes artists who are all distinguished performers, who play in and with the best orchestras in the world, as soloists and chamber musicians. Sunday’s line up featured pianist Peter Donohoe, cellist Richard Harwood, violinist Tamás András and violist Robert Smissen, with Leon Bosch on double bass.

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Leon Bosch (photo: Hyatt Studios)

St John’s Smith Square (SJSS) is now my favourite London venue, alongside Wigmore Hall, and while I and my concert companion were waiting for the recital to begin (there was a slight hiatus due to some mysteriously missing piano music, which was, luckily, found!) we perused the SJSS programme of forthcoming concerts and decided what we would like to hear next….. It really is a lovely venue, with a fine acoustic for chamber music, solo piano, choral and orchestral music, and its staff are friendly and helpful.

This elegant programme was guaranteed to dispel any lingering post-Christmas blues. The Mozart was elegantly-turned, warm and affectionate, while the Schubert rippled along as cheerfully as the eponymous fish, all holiday melodies and sunlit rhythms, with some charming interplay between the piano and the other instrumentalists. Peter Donohoe’s touch was bright and joyful, as befits the character of the music. Throughout the concert, there was a very palpable sense of all the musicians thoroughly enjoying both the music and the act of performing together, creating a lovely atmosphere in the venue. When I commented on this to Leon Bosch after the concert, he declared “I can choose who I work with” and he must be applauded for selecting musicians who display not only equal talent but also a shared sense of purpose and musical friendship.

The new work by Matthijs van Dijk, But All I Wanna Do Is Dance, was composed as a response to the extraordinary and unsettling events of 2016 which seem, in the composer’s own words, to have unleashed “a never-ending wave of anger, frustration, hate and bigotry in all shapes and sizes – all issues that need to be addressed, of course, and, once one is aware of them, unable to ignore”. The work is not intended as “a joyous declaration”, but rather a plea against the enormity of world events, an elegy to our inner child, and a wish to be allowed to forget what is going on, if only momentarily.

A haunting solo on the viola begins the work before it begins to open up with the addition of the piano and the rest of the ensemble. This meditative section is interrupted by febrile rhythms, suggesting lively dancing but always tempered with a sense of frustration and a yearning for the innocence of childhood, a time when one didn’t really know or understand what was happening in the world…..

I Musicanti returns to St John’s Smith Square on 5 March with an afternoon concert featuring another world premiere by South African composer Werner Bosch. Further details here

A year in music

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…..

 

 

 

 

Loft of Delights – organ recitals at St John’s Smith Square

organ

The splendid venue that is St John’s Smith Square, a beautiful eighteenth century church nestled amongst government offices and ministries in the heart of Westminster, is fast becoming one of my favourite London concert spaces – not just for piano music but also chamber, orchestral and choral music. I’ve even performed there myself, albeit a mere “15 minutes of fame” as part of St John’s 24-hour Music Marathon! And since September, I’ve been attending the monthly lunchtime organ recitals through which I’ve discovered a real liking for organ music. This is in part down to a friend of mine who adores Bach’s magnificent Passacaglia in C minor, BWV582 (which we heard in November, performed by Peter Stevens), but who would probably never go to an organ concert without my instigation.

The organ at St John’s is not original, though the main organ case, built by Jordan, Byfield and Bridges in 1734 acquired from St George’s church in Great Yarmouth, compliments the wonderful Baroque interior. It was installed in St John’s in 1972, and a new, larger organ case was built to accommodate the new instrument, built by Orgelbau Klais Bonn, which offers an enormous range of musical colour and versatility, suitable for repertoire from the German Baroque to high romanticism and contemporary repertoire.

There’s something really special about hearing an organ being played in the grandeur of a ecclesiastical building such as St John’s Smith Square. Whatever one’s religious, or otherwise leanings, one cannot help but be uplifted and awestruck by the volume, range and variety of sounds, the way those deep base notes swell and vibrate in the pit of the stomach, and the soaring sounds of the upper registers.

The organ series at St John’s Smith Square, now in its fifth edition, offers a broad range of performers and music, including organ favourites such as Bach’s ‘Ein Feste Burg’ and works by the leading composers for organ, Louis Vierne and Olivier Messiaen. In fact, it was the concerts featuring works by Messiaen which first drew me to this series, and David Titterington’s profound, vibrant and intensely absorbing performance of ‘La Nativité du Seigneur’ on 15 December was an example of the exceptional quality of these concerts (David has also recorded this work for Hyperion). Earlier in the season, we enjoyed a wonderfully mixed programme of music by Mendelssohn, Bach, Wesley and Messiaen by Jennifer Bate (a world authority on the organ music of Messiaen). The concert also included a work by Jennifer Bate herself, her ‘Variations on a Gregorian Theme’.

Seating is unreserved in St John’s for these concerts so one can choose to sit almost beneath the instrument if one so desires. A camera in the organ loft projects onto a screen on the stage, offering a fascinating glimpse of the organist at work (I had no idea it was so energetic, with hands and feet engaged for much of the time!). From the point of view of the pianist’s technique, I found it particularly interesting to see how the organist achieves legato effects, given the technical demands and mechanics of the instrument. And the sheer physical sound of the instrument, its richness, textural variety and surprising delicacy, has been quite unexpected, and something I look forward to exploring further at future concerts.

Monthly lunchtime organ recitals continue at St John’s Smith Square until June. Full details here

The pianist who completed Bach’s final fugue

J S Bach’s final masterpiece, the Art of the Fugue, is one of the most challenging, intense and intellectual keyboard works of all time. The work also confronts the ultimate tragedy of music history: Bach died before finishing his most ambitious work, and for centuries musicians have pondered what Bach had in mind when he began the final triple fugue, based on the musical spelling of his name: B-A-C-H.

In the final Fugue a 3, Bach begins an audacious and exhilarating culmination to his massive work, combining three themes — the evolved derivative of the original theme, along with a jaunty second theme, each of which have just had their own extended sections in the piece — with a theme that spells his own name in notes (this is only possible if you think about the names of notes like the Germans do, go read about it). Unfortunately, he had barely begun when death claimed him, and the piece was left unfinished.

Performers have to make some hard choices when playing this work. What to do when you get to the last notes? Skip the section altogether? Some, like Glenn Gould, punch out the last note like a pistol shot, shocking the listener out of their musical meditation with the harsh reality that it wasn’t supposed to be over, yet. And a select few — perhaps a dozen over the last 260 years — have written their own ending.

Robert Douglass – ‘What 2000 Hours of Piano Practice Sounds Like

Completing an unfinished work presents many challenges – as those who have attempted completions of Schubert’s fragmentary piano sonatas and his ‘Unfinished’ Symphony have discovered. It is a daring undertaking – how can we know what the composer was thinking? Does one attempt to produce music which flows seamlessly to the end or put one’s own personality on it, based on what is already in the score? This is particularly tricky when tackling the music of the greatest composer of all time.

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The unfinished fugue – Contrapunctus XIV (source Wikipedia)

Pianist Kimiko Ishizaka, whose previous Bach projects include recordings of the ‘Goldberg Variations’ and the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’, has completed Bach’s ‘Art of Fugue’ with her own composition of the final triple fugue. Meticulous study of all the pieces leading up to the finale, combined with her conviction that Bach would have concluded the work with something powerful, dramatic, expressive, and architecturally true to the musical structures at the point where he stopped. Kimiko presents her interpretation of the complete work at a concert at London’s St John’s Smith Square on Friday 23 September.

Here Kimiko discusses the special place the music of Bach has in her musical life and the challenges of composing and performing his music:

As a performer, you always try to understand what was in the mind of the composer. You pick apart the harmonies, the structures, and do your best to figure out why the composer wrote what they did. The resulting performance is hopefully a representation of the composer’s thoughts and emotions that is true to the quality and intensity of what they had imagined.  

If one wants to perform a piece of music that is truly reflective of one’s own thoughts and emotions, it isn’t enough to rest on the compositions of others; one has to write one’s own. Only then are you in total control over what is in the piece, and how it is put together. 

I started composing because I realised that I was having a musical experience in my mind that wasn’t written down anywhere. So I had to write it down to capture it. This turned into my first piece, after which I wrote more. I then realised that composing is a very enjoyable (albeit difficult, and draining) activity, and I especially like that you can do it out in nature; walking along while thinking, as opposed to being closed up in the practice room, chained to the piano.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

Without question, my careful study of J.S. Bach’s music has been extremely influential. Not only in my completion of “Die Kunst der Fuge” [The Art of Fugue], but also in the pieces that I write for myself. The complexity that results in carefully crafted counterpoint holds a strong attraction for me.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career?

Composing music takes me into a space so private, so deep, and so intense, that it leaves me drained and hollow when Im finished. By pouring every emotional and intellectual resource that I possess into the music, I have nothing left for myself. Its honestly been one of the reasons I dont simply compose more of the time; I cant bear the state of emptiness and loneliness that Im in at the end of the process.

I think the completion of “Die Kunst der Fuge” held special challenges, because it had to spring from Bach’s work naturally and organically. That means I had to do my best to adhere to the constraints, as best they’re understood, that Bach laid down in the extant sections of the work, yet suppose what he might have been up to at the time he stopped writing. But still, I was the one who had to produce the notes, so they definitely bear my fingerprint as well, and I’m the one who had to decide whether they sound good or not. Bach could no longer lend me his good judgment on the matter.

How would you characterise your own compositional language?

The music Ive composed recently is all fugal. Of the fugues Ive written, the only thing that has been performed in public is the completion of Die Kunst der Fuge”. Im quite proud that nobody seemed able to put their finger on the moment when Bachs music ended, and mine began.

How do you work?

I consider the structure of my works very carefully, and give each note due consideration. I keep track of the basic elements that are in use, and how they go together to create the big arc of the work.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I once played in a huge tent for 2,000 geeks and hackers who were attending a tech convention in the middle of a Dutch sheep field. It was probably the first live classical performance many of them had ever heard. I played Bach and Chopin, and the audience gave me every last bit of their attention, hanging on every note until the very end. It was magical for everyone.

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

Find your own way, and do what it takes to assure the highest level of quality that you are capable of.

The Art of Fugue at St John’s Smith Square

St John’s Smith Square announces its 2016/17 Season

On 20 June 2016 St John’s Smith Square announced its 2016/17 Season. With over 300 concerts and many individual series, workshops and strands, this season further strengthens St John’s Smith Square’s core mission: to be a centre of excellence for chamber orchestras, choral and vocal music and period instrument groups. St John’s Smith Square also plays a vital function in presenting new work (with over 30 world premieres already announced for 16/17) and supporting emerging artists (including an own-promoted Young Artists’ Series).

There is plenty to interest and excite lovers of piano music: the popular and excellent International Piano Series will continue at SJSS, its temporary home while the Southbank Centre undergoes refurbishment. IPS highlights include the outstanding young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor (4 October 2016), runner-up at the 2010 International Chopin Competition Ingolf Wunder (19 November 2016) and winner of the same competition Yulianna Avdeeva (29 March 2016). Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich perform music for 2 pianos as part of Southbank Centre’s year-long festival Belief and Beyond Belief in partnership with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (24 January 2017). This concert also forms part of Southbank Centre’s International Chamber Music Series.

In addition there will be performances by other pianists, including SJSS Young Artist Christina McMaster, Zubin Kanga, Geoffrey Saba, Rolf Hind, Howard Shelley and Martino Tirimo.

Richard Heason, Director of St John’s Smith Square said: 

“I am thrilled to be able to launch another season packed with exciting and stimulating concerts. It is particularly exciting to see international partnerships, with groups like Les Talens Lyriques and Stradivaria, starting to come to fruition. I am very keen to ensure that St John’s Smith Square presents a dynamic and individual programme and that we devote our energy to ensuring we present top quality artists. Alongside the distinctive baroque programme we offer it is also very rewarding to welcome artists presenting contemporary music and commissions. My sincere thanks go out to all those partners who have collaborated to make this programme possible. St John’s Smith Square receives no public subsidy and so we are reliant on the friendship and support of those who believe in our mission to be one of the UK’s leading concert halls.”

Pianist Christina McMaster St John’s Smith Square 2016/17 Young Artist

Ever since its reinvention as a concert hall, St John’s Smith Square has played a pivotal role in supporting the most promising young musicians. Simon Rattle, Steven Isserlis, Nigel Kennedy and Jacqueline du Pré are just a few of the musicians who performed at St John’s Smith Square before going on to begin internationally renowned careers.

St John’s Smith Square Young Artists’ Scheme 2016/17

“The Young Artists’ Scheme at St John’s Smith Square is a vital part of our mission as one of the UK’s leading concert halls. By investing in the development and nurturing of exceptional talent we are helping to ensure that music making and creative opportunity is refreshed and renewed for future generations. It is also, of course, incredibly exciting simply to observe the young performers as they develop across the course of their involvement with the scheme and a real reward for our audiences to be able to share this process of development.” – Richard Heason: Director, St John’s Smith Square

Pianist Christina McMaster is amongst the line up of the 2016/17 Young Artists’ Scheme (which also includes the Minerva Piano Trio, harpist Oliver Wass and the Ferio Saxophone Quartet). A champion of contemporary repertoire, Christina has been praised for her innovative programming, and her collaborations with a diverse mix of genres and arts, recently working with the Brodowski Quartet, violinist Lizzie Ball, rapper Tor Cesay, director Richard Williams, actors from Central Saint Martin’s and a number of designers for London Fashion week. She also commissions and performs a wide range of new music, and has worked with established composers including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Tansy Davies and Stephen Montague as well as emerging composers – collaborating most recently with Freya Waley-Cohen and Richard Bullen.

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Christina launched her debut album ‘Pinks & Blues’ in October 2015 on her own label to a sell-out audience at St James’ Theatre, the album is a fusion of jazz and blues influenced classical and contemporary music with two new commissions.

“Thanks to the St John’s Smith Square Young Artists’ Scheme I am able to design and deliver my ambitious vision of an exciting ‘mini-festival’ across 2016/17 season with an array of concerts from solo piano music by Bartók, Scarlatti, Ligeti, Debussy, to a concert where 120 school children take over the galleries of SJSS! Responding to the building’s rich history I’ll perform music by Dowland, Shostakovich, Britten and Birtwistle with the Ligeti Quartet; and the brilliant sisters Kristine and Margarita Balanas will join me for piano trios by Schumann and Arvo Pärt. The scheme has also provided the wonderful opportunity to commission new music by Richard Bullen and Ayanna Witter-Johnson; Ayanna will pay homage to one of her heroines in celebration of International Women’s Day alongside some of my musical heroes including Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Charles Ives and Meredith Monk.”  –

Christina McMaster

Meet the Artist……Christina McMaster

Review of Pinks & Blues

St John’s Smith Square Young Artists’ Scheme

The Viennese Salon: Innocence and Lust

The Françoise-Green Duo at St John’s Smith Square, Thursday 31st March 2016

  

The five-concert residency at St John’s Smith Square by the Françoise-Green piano duo is exploring the music of Vienna’s musical landscape through its salon culture, from Mozart and Schubert to Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Vienna’s unique system of private and public patronage allowed composers such as Mozart to present their music to a select audience via the salon. For Schubert, who did not have the kind of patronage and support Mozart enjoyed, nor publishers eagerly clamouring for his music, performances within the privacy of his own circle of friends was the only way his audacious music found a truly receptive audience. This salon culture became even more pronounced at the turn of the twentieth century, when Schoenberg and his cohort broke away from the Vienna Tonkunstlerverein and built their own community for the performance of their music outside of the mainstream where much of their music was premiered through private performance societies. The Françoise-Green Duo pay a special hommage to this by performing new works which they have commissioned especially for their residency.

Music for piano duo is often, and mistakenly, regarded as “light” – music to be enjoyed at home amongst friends, and the enduring popularity of music for piano duo is testament to its appeal, variety and inventiveness. Both Mozart and Schubert wrote fine works for piano 4-hands, including the latter’s Fantasie in f minor, D940, arguably the most profound work ever written for this genre.

This particular concert, the third in the series, revealed the contrasting characters of Vienna, from the elegance and wit of Mozart through Schubert’s bittersweet Allegro in A minor ‘Lebenssturme’, D947, to the decadence and eroticism of fin de siecle Vienna of Alban Berg, reimagined by British composer Kenneth Hesketh in his Die letzten Augenblicken der Lulu, and the world premiere of ‘Fable’, a new work by Colin Alexander which was dedicated to the duo.

The Françoise-Green Duo are notable for their confident and convincing handling of contemporary repertoire – one has the sense of two musicians who actively relish the challenges, both technical and artistic, that this music presents – yet their opening piece, the Sonata in F K497, written at the end of Mozart’s life, proved them at home in more traditionally “classical” repertoire. In this sonata, the two pianists are equal players, sparking off one another, and creating witty dialogues interspersed with rich orchestral textures. In the softer dynamic range, the pianists brought a tenderness which immediately shrank the large space of St John’s Smith Square to an intimate salon.

Kenneth Hesketh’s work is both a redaction of Berg’s ‘Lulu Suite’ focusing on the main material in the suite, but also providing a flashback of Lulu’s life in the immediate moments before her death. Soprano Sarah Gabriel’s performance in this work was dramatic and vulnerable, and the combination of spoken word and vocal line, culminating in a full-throated scream signifying Lulu’s death at the hand of Jack the Ripper, was searing. The piano part created an unsettling undercurrent, increasing in urgency towards the tragic denouement.
After the interval came the world premiere of Colin Alexander’s ‘Fable’, a work which fully utilised the fine acoustic of St John’s Smith Square, the resonance of the Steinway D, and the duo’s technical assuredness. At times, the sounds emanating from the piano recalled bells, bassoons, horns and chanting, which built in intensity to create a hypnotic whole. It put me in mind of Somei Satoh’s mesmeric Incarnation II, which uses the resonance of the piano to similar effect.
It’s all too easy to ascribe a certain mindset or state of health to Schubert’s music: his illness, syphilis, and its disturbing and debilitating treatment and side effects are well-documented. Whatever the composer’s mental state in the final year of his life, there is no doubt that this was a period of fervent, boundary-breaking creativity. The ‘Lebenssturme’ (Life’s Storm – a title assigned by the publisher after Schubert’s death) opens with a dramatic motif of forte (check) chords which gives way to an ethereal second subject, which Antoine Françoise seemed to float across the upper register of the piano. It’s a substantial work whose structure hints that Schubert might have had something longer in mind and which demonstrates fully the breadth and daring of his creativity in the year of his life. 

For an encore, the duo played the opening movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K19d (dropped from the original programme better to accommodate the new works) Written when the composer was still a boy, yet already bright with promise, witty, colourful, and elegantly turned by Robin Green and Antoine Françoise.

‘The Viennese Salon’ continues at St John’s Smith Square on 7 April with a rare opportunity to hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 arranged for piano four-hands by Alexander von Zemlinsky together with works by Mozart and the world premiere of a new piece by Alissa Firsova. Further information here

Recommended.

St John Passion at St John’s Smith Square

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First page of the autograph manuscript of St John Passion
Hearing J S Bach’s St John Passion in a Baroque church, as I did on Good Friday, connected this powerful and stirring work more closely to its original conception and performance. This was the annual Good Friday performance at St John’s Smith Square, a Baroque church in the heart of Westminster, given by Polyphony with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Stephen Layton.

Bach composed his Johannes Passion (St John Passion) in 1724, the composer’s first year as director of church music in Leipzig. The work received its first performance on 7 April 1724, at Good Friday Vespers, at the St Nicholas Church. The work is in two sections, intended to flank a sermon, and the text, which retells the events of Good Friday leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, death and deposition from the Cross, is drawn from chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John in the Luther Bible. To the modern audience, the text may seem arcane, and the unfolding narrative feels almost operatic, but to the congregation in Bach’s church, it would have been entirely familiar, as were the chorales which used well-known hymn tunes and texts. The work comprises choruses, chorales, arias and recitatives, with some highly effective and arresting “word painting” to reflect the meaning of certain words or passages.

In this performance, the role of St John the Evangelist was sung by Stuart Jackson whose tenor voice was eloquent, pure and mellifluous. Jackson was joined by Neal Davies, a sombre Christus, whose interplay with Roderick Williams’ Pilate was gripping and intense. Julia Doyle, Iestyn Davies, and Gwilym Bowen all responded with sensitivity to the spiritual substance of the text and the profound drama of the narrative. Julia Doyle’s soprano arias were especially luminous, while Iestyn Davies’ counter-tenor was clear and ethereal.

Polyphony sang with a full, rounded sound with impressively crisp diction which brought a dramatic immediacy to the text, for example in the chorus when Christ is brought before Pilate and the choir become the baying crowd. Stephen Layton drew a rich, colourful sound from the OAE with some particularly fine contributions from the woodwind and an elegant cello continuo. The pacing of the drama was also expertly judged by Layton with impactful and moving pauses and longer silences to allow the audience time to digest and reflect upon the highly charged and emotional narrative.

Intimacy and Control: Steven Osborne at St John’s Smith Square

The transfer of the International Piano Series to St John’s Smith Square while the Southbank Centre undergoes a facelift is proving successful and popular. An elegant venue with a fine acoustic and a beautiful Steinway piano, coupled with one of the UK’s most gifted pianists active today, made for an evening of music making of the highest calibre, in a diverse programme which opened with Schubert and closed with Rachmaninov.

Steven Osborne
(photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Schubert’s second set of Impromptus D935 are less frequently performed than the first set, with the exception of the third of the set (a set of variations based on the Rosamunde theme). The first and the last, both in F minor but very contrasting, were presented in this concert. The word “Impromptu” is misleading, suggesting a small-scale extemporaneous salon piece or album leaf. Schubert’s Impromptus, composed in 1827, his post-Winterreise year of fervent creativity, are tightly-structured and highly cohesive works.

There is nothing “small scale” about the opening of the first of the D935, and Steven Osborne‘s account of this was brisk, almost terse, and bold, with a grandeur redolent of Beethoven at his most expansively gestural. But Schubert does not linger in this territory for long and soon the music moved into a far more introverted realm. The middle section, tender duetting fragments over an undulating accompaniment, was poetic, intimate and ethereal. By contrast, the other F minor Impromptu was infused with Hungarian flavours, with offbeat rhythms and twisting scalic figures. Osborne pulled it off with a modest bravado, alert always to Schubert’s miraculous harmonic shifts and fleeting moods.

Read my full review here