I was expecting to hear a friend of mine, Charles Tebbs, perform Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ at the delightful Sutton House Music Society on Sunday evening, but sadly Charles was unwell. A frantic call for a replacement went out on Facebook, which I happened to see and respond to. I am not suggesting for one moment that I “saved” the concert, but serendipitously, Daniel Grimwood whom I suggested as a replacement, was available and stood in at very short notice to perform an all-Bach programme. It is a mark of Daniel’s professionalism that he betrayed not an ounce of unpreparedness. He introduced the programme engagingly, highlighting various aspects of the music and describing the first half of the programme (Bach’s Italian Concerto and the fifth French Suite in G) as being “the jolly music”.

The Italian Concerto was indeed jolly, with precise yet sprightly passagework, crisp articulation and nuanced voicing. Daniel also plays the harpsichord and this is evident in his sensitive touch and terraced dynamics. The middle movement had a sombre grandeur, with an elegantly-turned improvisatory melodic line floating atop the bass. The closing movement poured forth like an exuberant mountain stream, rich in orchestral textures and vibrant contrasts.

More of the same in the Fifth French Suite, whose Sarabande shares the same soundworld as the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, and which Daniel played with grace and delicacy. Other notable features were the most charming and spontaneous ornaments in the repeated sections of the movements. The closing Gigue had the necessary forward propulsion, a dancing column of energy running through the entire movement.

After the interval, the Sixth Partita in sombre E minor. This, as Daniel explained, is Bach’s nearest equivalent for the keyboard to the St John Passion or the B-minor Mass, and is a work of great seriousness, mystery and profound musical thought. The opening Toccata begins with a dramatic “rocket” figure, a rising arpeggio flourish which colours the first section before the music moves into a darkly dramatic four-part fugue. All the movements display vocal textures, particularly the closing Gigue, whose rhythmic anomalies Daniel demonstrated in his introduction. This was an authoritative, thoughtful and vibrant performance, providing a wonderful contrast to the more positive music of the first half.

Sutton House Music Society is based at Sutton House in Hackney, east London, which is owned by the National Trust. Built in 1535, the house holds a fascinating juxtaposition of oak-panelled Tudor rooms, Jacobean wall paintings and Georgian and Victorian interiors, and audience members can enjoy a tour of the houseahead of a concert. The music society attracts both established and up-and-coming artists, performing a wide variety of repertoire, and the 2014/15 season concludes with a concert by the Roskell Piano Trio in music by Mozart, Shostakovich and Schumann. Concerts take place in Wenlock Barn, an early 20th-century addition which was built specially for events such as concerts.

Further information about the concert and the Society here

Meet the Artist……Daniel Grimwood

Elena Riu

Another enjoyable outing to Sutton House in Hackney for the second concert in Sutton House Music Society’s 2012-13 season, given by Venezuelan pianist Elena Riu, in her new project called ‘Inventions’.

The programme placed the Two- and Three-part Inventions of Bach alongside inventions by contemporary composers, including Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Shchedrin, Gulbaidulina and Finch. Elena described the programme as “an experiment”, though there was nothing experimental about her playing. The Bach Inventions, many of which brought a Proustian rush of memories for me, as I had learnt them as a young piano student, were executed with a restrained elegance, which served to highlight the beauty of Bach’s contrapuntal writing. And by placing Bach alongside contemporary composers, Elena was able to illuminate Bach’s own innovative approach.

Bach intended his Inventions as exercises for piano students: as he stated on the title page, they were designed to enable students of the piano to “learn to play cleanly in two parts” and “to handle three obligate parts correctly and well”. They were also intended to help the piano student develop a good cantabile (singing) style of playing, and to “acquire a strong foretaste of composition”. Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions are models of “inventiveness”. Each one takes an opening motif which is then used to create new themes and develop them in clever and ingenious ways. Although tightly structured, with distinct motives, answers, counter-motives, and expositions, Bach’s Inventions – and those which were inspired by his writing – display an inventive process, whereby the motive is varied, counterpointed and re-textured to create a complete work.

Contemporary composers, inspired by Bach, have used the Invention model as a springboard for new explorations of the form, utilising different styles and musical language. It is the spirit of “inventiveness” in both new and old which connects Bach to his contemporary successors. As Elena Riu mentioned in the programme notes, this juxtaposition of old and new is a “journey of recreation – I have gathered together a selection of pieces which distil new material out of the old”.

Some of the works performed were fleeting, miniatures of only a page or so. Others were a little more substantial, though still of the genre ‘miniature’. Many showed the influence of Bach in motifs, textures and ornamentation. All were played with fine attention to detail, exquisite dynamic shading (whispered pianissimos, and some wonderfully bright and percussive fortes), charm and humour. The programme included the UK premiere of ‘Invención’ by Venezuelan composer Alfredo Rugeles, and world premieres of works by Diana Arismendi and Lola Perrin, whose work ‘Poet Reflecting’ (2012) had a spare and meditative beauty. The concert closed with Rodion Shchedrin’s ‘exuberant and colourful Two-Part Invention’, which left me and my concert companion exclaiming to one another “I’ve got to learn that!”.  (This, for me, is one of the chief pleasures of a concert programme such as this: exposure to new repertoire.)

For an encore, Elena played Granados’ ‘Danza de la Rosa’ from the Escenas Poeticas, a sensuous and atmospheric miniature.
My Meet the Artist interview with Elena Riu

The 2012-13 season at Sutton House continues in February, with a concert by ‘cellist Mayda Narvey and pianist Naomi Edemariam. Full details and tickets here.

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

I’m not sure. I wanted to be a dancer but where I was born it wasn’t easy. Then a friend of mine started having piano lessons and I became interested and wanted to take it up. My first teacher was a Polish Jew. She had her concentration camp number tattooed on her arm. My father was musical and my brother is a really good blues and rock guitarist so I guess it was in my blood.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

Besides my teachers, my influences are varied. From visual artists to poets and dancers as well as composers and colleagues and friends.

Someone always close to my heart is Federico Mompou, the great Catalan composer. I love Curzon’s playing as well as Alicia de Larrocha who inspired me to study the great Spanish masters Albeniz , Granados and Falla. I admire Arrau’s honesty, Richter’s melancholy and Brendel’s intellect and scholarship and also like Schiff’s Mozart and and Gould’s originality and personal integrity. But I seldom go to concerts now.

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

Playing well and improving is a perpetual challenge. To keep going is sometimes a challenge. Recording under less-than-ideal circumstances with very limited studio time can be a bit of a challenge too. Dealing with rejection. Working with mediocre producers can also be a bit hairy.

Playing the Tavener piece was a big challenge because it was John’s first piano piece in many years and the stakes and expectations were high. I wanted people to see how great the piece was and not let John down.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

Company…..colour, sharing, being enveloped and held by a group of musicians can carry one far afield.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

My first recording including the premiere of Sir John Taveners ‘Ypakoe’, which he wrote for me and my recording of Soler Keyboard Sonatas.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

I like the Southbank Centre.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Mmmmmm, quite a few colleagues doing their own thing at their own pace whilst juggling mountains…..

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Many, but one that springs to mind was playing Night in the Gardens of Spain with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Caracas and opening for the wonderful Cuban pianist Bebo Valdez and El Cigala at the Royal Festival Hall.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

To play early music is a favourite. When I first went to Dartington I met the Dufay Collective and forged a strong friendship with singer Vivien Ellis which fostered my love for this repertoire. I also listen to world and folk including flamenco which was a favourite of my father’s. To play, many but if I had to single out something it would be Mompou.

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

It’s a bit like being a new parent. Trust your intuition and look at your child and be guided by her. Don’t listen to just anyone. Explore, be inquisitive, work, work and work some more. Follow your own path. Hold on to your integrity and to who you are. Choose a teacher and be steadfast. You know the saying: when one is ready the teacher appears.

What are you working on at the moment?

Bach Inventions and inventions by contemporary composers who explored the form for my concert at Sutton House. Latin music with percussionist Adriano Adewale.

What is your most treasured possession?

My daughter. My body.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Having breakfast in bed, playing and swimming with my daughter, doing yoga and having a laugh with friends.

Elena Riu performs at Sutton House, Hackney, east London on Sunday 18th November with the debut of “Inventions”, a fascinating programme juxtaposing Bach’s Inventions with Inventions by contemporary composers including Ligeti, Gubaidulina, Finch and Shchedrin. Further details and tickets here.

Born and bred in El Sistema, Elena’s infectious enthusiasm for “boundary- jumping” (Time Out), and for bringing new music to a wider audience has brought her accolades all over the world.

A leading exponent of the Hispano-American, her CD of Sonatas by Soler was released to great acclaim by the Spanish label Ensayo. She is a regular visitor to the Festival Latinoamericano.
Elena has commissioned, edited, published, performed and recorded over 40 new works giving countless world premieres including Sir John Tavener’s “Ypakoe”, written especially for her. Elena’s efforts on behalf of new music and as a keen educationalist led to the publication by Boosey & Hawkes of ‘Salsa Nueva’ in 2006 – now on its second run and in 2009 ‘Elena Riu’s R’n’B Collection’ and ‘Out of the Blues’ CD.

Elena has toured extensively and has performed in all major concert halls in the UK and abroad.

An eclectic artist, Elena has pioneered collaborative work. She was the brain behind the sell-out multicultural Spanish Plus Series at the SBC and re-launched their Childrens and Families series. Her most recent collaboration: The Adventures of Tom Thumb was awarded a coveted Fringe First Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Riu studied at Trinity College of Music in London with Joseph Weingarten where she won many prizes ands competitions. She was also a student of Neil Immelman, Maria Curcio and Roger Vignoles. Later, Elena won a scholarship from to travel to Paris for advanced tuition from Vlado Perlemuter in Paris.


Peter Donohoe (image credit: Susie Ahlburg)

Tchaikovsky – Scherzo à la Russe, Op. 1 No. 1 Intermezzo in E flat minor, Op. 1 No. 2

Prokofiev – Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 1

Bartók – Rhapsody, Op. 1

Schumann – Abegg Variations, Op. 1

Berg – Sonata, Op. 1

Brahms – Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 1

Peter Donohoe, piano

Acclaimed British pianist Peter Donohoe opened the 2012-13 season of concerts hosted by Sutton House Music Society with a coruscating performance of music by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Bartók, Schumann, Berg and Brahms. Intriguingly entitled ‘Opus 1’, the programme featured early works by these great composers. As Peter said in his introduction, ‘Opus 1’ does not indicate the first ever piece written by the composer, but rather the first published work. These works are revealing in that they all contain fascinating pre-echoes of the composers’ later music, as well as highlighting the diversity, originality, and future maturity of these composers. The theme of the concert also enabled contrasting composers – Tchaikovsky and Berg, for example – to be programmed together. The first half of the concert was all Slavic composers, the second all Germanic.

“My first published piece was Scherzo à la russe, Op. 1″ so wrote Tchaikovsky in a letter to Nadezha von Meck, in 1879. Dedicated to the great pianist Nikolai Rubinstein (who famously rejected Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto as unplayable), the Scherzo a la russe and Impromptu in E-flat minor both show evidence of the composer’s later style, particularly that of the Nutcracker ballet score.

The Scherzo, based on a Ukrainian song which the composer heard from the gardeners at Kamenka, the home of his sister, begins innocently enough, with a naive melody, executed with a disarming simplicity by Donohoe, before moving into more chorale-like territory. The return to the opening theme is marked by cascades of octaves, all handled with ease. The Impromptu, meanwhile, marked ‘Allegro Furioso’, opens in a brash, excitable gallop, cast in unremitting quaver triplets, which gives way to an arresting, Chopinesque middle section played with great expression and beauty of tone.

Anyone familiar with Prokofiev’s later works, striking for their uncompromising, exciting and original harmonic landscapes, could be forgiven for mistaking the Sonata No. 1 for a work by Glazunov (one of Prokofiev’s professors). Although not part of the composer’s juvenilia, nor does it hint at his later style: rather, it is a showcase of the composer’s pianistic skills. It was not especially well-received, and was attacked by modernists for being “too orthodox”, perhaps because it shows the influence of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Busoni, and, above all, Anton Rubinstein (a favourite composer of Prokofiev’s mother). Scored in a single movement in rigid sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation), it suggests an unwritten second and third movement, and has a sweeping lyricism with a strong emphasis on melody. It was played with flamboyance, with bright fortes and passages of great warmth, intensity and romance.

Bartok’s Rhapsody Opus 1 is full of premonitions of his later works – bass drones, open fifths, folk melodies and dances – yet has a strong affinity with Liszt in its thunderous virtuosic passages, sweeping scale and its masterful juxtaposition of the ethereal (in the opening Adagio) with the ominous in the boisterous and colourful second section. It was performed with great involvement and commitment, Donohoe highlighting perfectly the contrasting moods, colours and textures of the music, including some wittily executed glissandi and hushed pianissimo passages.

Schumann’s ‘Abegg Variations‘ felt like more familiar territory, with arabesques and fiorituras, and cantabile melodies redolent of Chopin. Despite its opus number, this work was neither Schumann’s first work, nor his first set of variations. With its letter-to-pitch derivations, the music prefigures ‘Carnaval’, and the later fugues on the name BACH. Each variation was executed with delicacy of touch, a rich mellifluous tone, and sparkling flourishes.

The Berg Sonata, like the Prokofiev, is cast in a single movement, with an exposition that includes two contrasting themes, a development section in which the themes are expanded, a recapitulation, in which the themes are restated, and a plaintive coda. It makes use of many tonal suspensions, which create some particularly haunting passages. The work is poignant and passionate, with a dramatic intensity, which Donohoe maintained throughout, playing with great commitment, at times as if for himself alone.

In contrast, the Brahms Piano Sonata opens with a thrilling opening gesture reminiscent of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, offset by a tender second theme, which prefigures the composer’s later writing for the piano. The slow movement is tender and songful, the Scherzo all Beethovenian swagger and rhythmic vitality, while the Finale reprises the ‘Hammerklavier’ idea in a dancing Rondo theme with contrasting episodes. In it, Donohoe demonstrated his ability to switch seamlessly between power and resolution, and warmth and lyricism. This was truly a thrilling finale to a fascinating, insightful and deeply involving concert.

Sutton House Music Society is based at Sutton House, a Tudor house run by the National Trust in Hackney, east London. Concerts are held in Wenlock Barn, an intimate recital space which allows audience to feel very connected and involved with the performer/s. The Music Society hosts a varied selection concerts, offering audiences the chance to hear top-flight artists as well as up-and-coming talents. For details of forthcoming concerts, please click here.

The next concert at Sutton House is on Sunday 18th November and is given by pianist Elena Riu. Elena will feature in a Meet the Artist interview ahead of her concert.

My Meet the Artist interview with Peter Donohoe

Sutton House Music Society website

Acclaimed British pianist and joint silver medal winner of the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition (1982), Peter Donohoe opens the new season of concerts presented by Sutton House Music Society, at Sutton House in Hackney, east London.

In a programme wittily entitled ‘Opus 1’, Peter explores the early works of the great composers – Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Schumann, Berg and Brahms. This promises to be an excellent concert not to be missed, and early booking is recommended.

Concerts at Sutton House take place in The Barn, and the intimate venue is a wonderful place to hear top-quality international artists as well as up-and-coming musicians. Other performers in the 2012-13 season include Elena Riu, The Roskell Piano Trio and the Fitzwilliam Quartet.
Further details and tickets here

My Meet the Artist interview with Peter Donohoe

My reviewing job for Bachtrack.com has enabled me to attend many more concerts than I used to, and I am at the Southbank at least as frequently as I am at the Wigmore Hall these days.

Each venue has its own audience, with its own quirks and foibles. The Wigmore audience is famously high-brow – or at least would like to be regarded as high-brow – elderly and “north London” (the hall is often nicknamed ‘The North London Concert Hall’). Members of the audience are expected to sit in reverential silence, to know when to clap, and to generally behave impeccably. I have twice been asked to remove my watch at the Wigmore because “the tick is too loud”. Sometimes, if a member of the audience coughs too much, or fidgets, or – Heaven forfend! – rustles a programme, they will be met with fierce looks and angry, hissed “shusshings”. It is therefore always interesting to see who has turned out for a more unusual or adventurous concert programme, or a young performer debuting at the Wigmore (“doing a Wigmore” as it is known in the trade). At Di Xiao’s recent debut, the audience were younger, many were fellow Chinese, and my friend and I also spotted quite a few musical “slebs” including cellist Julian Lloyd-Weber. The presence of such “slebs” may suggest that these people know something we don’t, or that the soloist is “one to watch”. Last summer, at a charming and touching Chopin concert with readings, organised by pianist Lucy Parham, one couldn’t move for theatrical lovies: both the Fox’s, Martin Jarvis, Timothy West and Prunella Scales, to drop but a few names. Stephen Hough tends to attract young, mostly gay, acolytes, and if Till Fellner is performing, you can almost guarantee to see his teacher, Alfred Brendel in the front bar. As a member of the ‘press pack’ now, I often arrive at a concert to find the venue has put all the journos together (excellent seats at RFH and QEH, right at the back at the Wigmore), and we all scribble away trying not to read what our neighbour has written, just like being back at school!

The audience at Cadogan Hall is different. Stepping into the champagne bar there’s always a great buzz of chat and shouts of laughter, enough to suggest that this audience is likely to be younger, more awake and maybe more receptive to what they are about to hear. Audiences on the Southbank are generally younger, more trendy, more relaxed, while the Proms audience is different again – a real mixture of music afficionados, groupies, students, curious tourists, old timers who go year after year and people who are just beginning to explore the great annual music festival. The enthusiasm of the Proms audience is really infectious and undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment of the Proms this summer.

Sometimes the soloist or musicians themselves can affect the way the audience responds and behaves during a concert. At Maria Joao Pires’s wonderful Schubert series at the Wigmore a few years ago, the musicians (the Brodsky Quartet and singer Rufus Muller) remained on the stage while Pires played her solo pieces (a selection of Schubert’s Impromptus) and the audience was asked not to applaud until the end of the first half. This created a wonderful sense of an intimate, shared event, and we might have been in Schubert’s salon, enjoying an evening of music making amongst friends, for friends.

But if we, the audience, are too much in awe of the soloist, we can put up invisible barriers which can affect the atmosphere in the concert hall. This was very apparent when I heard Daniel Barenboim perform as part of his Beethoven Piano Sonatas series some years ago.

Recently, I’ve attended and performed in informal concerts in other people’s homes. My husband likes these kinds of concerts, with wine and friends and chat between pieces. As he rightly points out, this is a much more natural way of enjoying music that was written before c1850 (when Liszt, almost single-handedly, made the concert into the event as we know it today), and reminds us that music is, above all, for sharing. With the increasing popularity of presenting music in more unusual and intimate venues like The Red Hedgehog or Sutton House (London), or in the beautiful library of the cloisters in Wittem (Belgium), musicians are able to bring music much closer to the audience, literally and metaphorically, while events such as Speed Dating with the OAE (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) offer audiences the chance to meet the musicians after the performance.

Audiences Behaving Badly

Some other small venues:

Woodhouse Copse, near Dorking, Surrey

Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre, Walton, Surrey

Guildford Guildhall, Surrey

The Forge, Camden, London

Rook Lane Arts Centre, Frome, Somerset