The genteel Wigmore Hall audience was startled by the abrupt slamming of the lid of the piano, heralding the start of a brand new work by a composer celebrating a significant birthday on the day of the concert. The pianist was Igor Levit, always very popular with Wigmore audiences, and the composer was Frederic Rzewski. As a student Levit was captivated by Rzewski’s music and asked the composer to write a new piece. The work premiered at this concert was commissioned by Wigmore Hall for Levit to play.

Read my full review here

It seemed fitting in the year of the centenary of Claude Debussy’s death for the pianist Denis Kozhukhin to devote half of a concert to his music, and appropriate to include George Gershwin in the second half. Debussy was undoubtedly aware of – and influenced by –  American ragtime and jazz, and had an immense influence on Gershwin, and later jazz composers, including Duke Ellington, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. The ghost of the French composer haunts many of Gershwin’s works with their pungent harmonies, simple melodies and improvisations.

Never had Book 1 of Debussy’s Préludes seemed so languid, so laid back as in Kozhukhin’s hands: even the up-tempo pieces such as Le Vent dans la plaine and Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, or the capricious La Danse de Puck had a relaxed suppleness which suggested music played not in a grand concert hall but rather late evening in a Parisian café with a glass of something before one. Danseuses de Delphes set the tone: this first Prelude had an erotic grace, a hint of naughtiness behind the direction Lent et grave (slow and serious). Voiles even more so: was this a boat gently rocking on water, its sails barely ruffled by a warm breeze, or perhaps diaphanous veils wafting in an altogether more sensuous scenario? Kozhukhin kept us guessing, lingering over Debussy’s intangible perfumed harmonies, subtly shading his colourful layers and textures, and highlighting the quirky rhythmic fragments which frequent these miniature jewels. His approach was concentrated and intense – the frigid stillness of Des pas sur la neige was almost exquisitely unbearable – but there was wit and playfulness too, Minstrels prancing cheekily across the keyboard to close the first half with an insouciant flourish.

Read full review here


Artist photo: Marco Borggreve

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Edited highlights, especially for piano fans…..

A welcome return by Russian pianist Igor Levit, whose Beethoven cycle at Wigmore Hall received huge acclaim. He will give a series of concerts on variations including Bach’s ‘Goldberg’, Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’, and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated

Other pianists appearing in the 2018/19 season include Lars Vogt, Richard Goode, Thomas Ades, Alexander Melnikov, Sir Andras Schiff, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Angela Hewitt, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Jonathan Plowright, Jeremy Denk, Lucas Debargue and Evgeny Kissin

Plus special birthday concerts for Emmanuel Ax (70), Christian Blackshaw (70), Piotr Anderszewski (50)

Full details of the 2018/19 Season will be available from April when the complete season brochure is published. Meanwhile, download the season preview here

Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall, 13 June 2017

Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Opp 109, 110 and 111

I first heard Igor Levit in this sonata triptych back in 2013. It seemed a bold programme choice for a young man, yet Levit’s assertion that this music was “written to be played” makes perfect sense and is a view I’m sure Beethoven would concur with. Then I felt there was room for development and maturity, important attributes for any young artist in the spring of their professional career. Now I hear an artist who has lived with – and in – the music and has crystallised his own view about it.

He crouches over the piano like an animal coiled for attack, yet the sound in those opening bars of the Sonata in E major, Op.109, was so delicate, so lyrically ethereal, it felt as if the music was emerging from some mystical outer firmament, entirely appropriate for these sonatas which find Beethoven in profoundly philosophical mood. It is music which speaks of shared values and what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being; it “puts us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe” (Paul Lewis). The Prestissimo second movement, urgent and anxious in its tempo and atmosphere emphasised by some ominous bass figures, contained Levit’s trademark “shock and awe” stamping fortes and fortissimos, only to find him and the music back in meditative mood for the theme and variations, which reprised the serenity of the opening, the theme spare and prayer-like with more of that wonderfully delicate shading at the quietest end of the dynamic spectrum that he does so well.

Read my full review here

 

 

 

(photo ©Igor Levit)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?

I have been surrounded by music since birth. My mother is a pianist and teacher and I spent my childhood listening to her practice and being taken to concerts, the opera and ballet. I was particularly fascinated to hear and see ‘magic’ on stage, and then meet the artists afterwards, with their ‘mask’ off. I started attending the Sarajevo Junior Music School before I started main school. I do remember wanting to be an opera singer initially, but the piano somehow won, and I am very happy that it did! Although I loved being immersed in music, later, if anything, I almost tried to avoid it as a career.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My long-term teachers, Niel Immelman and Peter Bithell. Working with singers while I was a student – they taught me how to breathe, phrase and tell a story. Dmitry Bashkirov who taught me to listen and colour every note in a way I didn’t think possible before. Steven Kovacevich for instilling discipline in me!

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

Learning to say no.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

My debut disc ‘In the mists’, because it had humble beginnings as an intended demo CD: As a coincidence, shortly after I recorded a few pieces at Champs Hill, Champs Hill Records was set up. They took my disc on, it was launched at my first Wigmore recital in 2010 and suddenly it started to receive wonderful reviews worldwide culminating in the Newcomer of the Year award from the BBC Music Magazine.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Usually what I’m playing at the time, especially if I am revisiting a work after some time away from it.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Mostly, there is a thread to my programming, a story. I try to bind together works I am drawn to play, and sometimes ones I have been asked to play, into a well-structured and balanced programme.

I have realised, somewhat retrospectively, that I have been especially drawn to composers who have sought to develop a sense of a national voice through their music. It all begun with my intrigue of the Russian Mighty Five while I was still at Cambridge. I then immersed myself in Janacek’s oeuvre, and afterwards in Grieg’s. More recently, I have loved spending time with Chopin Mazurkas. Although they are very stylised and sophisticated works, some, especially the early ones, are rather rustic and jagged, and I find this quite charming.

I’m also excited and honoured that one of the most interesting living composers, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, will be writing a Piano Concerto for me next year, in homage to the Haydn D major Concerto. It’s been long-in-planning but we’re very happy to make it happen. I wish promoters were not so afraid of commissioning new works.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

The Wigmore Hall, of course! It’s a beautiful and intimate venue.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Favourite pieces to perform: in short, piano concertos. There is no greater feeling to me, than the thrill of playing concerti, and especially when it feels like you and the orchestra are making chamber music together, on a large scale. With listening, I usually go back to the same pieces: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, Rachmaninov Songs and anything written for the Ballets Russes. I’m also very fond of Ivor Cutler’ quirky recordings. Most of the time though, I just love putting the radio on.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Martha Argerich, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Annie Fischer, Ivan Fischer, Bernard Haitink, Teodor Currentzis.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Every concert experience is memorable in some way. Performing concerts is such an intense and intimate experience, and yet over in an instant, that nothing else I know comes close.

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

Grab every opportunity. Remember that we spend our days with beautiful things.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Dancing!

Ivana Gavric will be performing at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 23rd April at 1130am, as part of the Coffee Concerts Series. Further information here

Her new album ‘Chopin’ will be released on Edition Classics on Friday 21st April and is available for pre-order now

British pianist Ivana Gavric created a sensation with her debut disc In the mists, winning BBC Music Magazine Newcomer of the Year for ‘playing of an altogether extraordinary calibre’. Her third disc of works by Grieg, also on Champs Hill Records, was selected as Editor’s Choice in Gramophone and noted for ‘an electrifying performance’ (BBC Music Magazine). The Grieg Society has voted the CD as its ‘Recording of the Year’. Ivana has performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, the Trondheim Soloists, Aurora Orchestra and South Denmark Philharmonie. She has collaborated with conductors including Rafael Payare, Nicholas Collon, Christian Kluxen and Ben Gernon.

Following her US solo debut, the Washington Post described Ivana’s playing as ‘impressive, insightful… a ravishing performance’. Ivana has been heard on the major concert platforms including The Wigmore Hall, the Barbican, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, KKL Lucerne, Gilmore Festival Rising Star Series, as well as across China, in Canada and Japan. Attracting considerable praise for her interpretations of Janacek’s music in particular, Ivana has curated festivals dedicated to the composer’s solo and chamber works. Also a dedicated chamber musician, Ivana performed with violinist Maxim Vengerov as part of Live Music Now, the outreach scheme established by the late Lord Menuhin.


She has partnered colleagues on the concert platform in festivals in the UK and Europe, taken part in the IMS Prussia Cove Open Chamber Music Sessions and is an alumna of the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. Outside the concert hall she is featured playing Chopin and Beethoven in BBC2’s adaptation of The Line of Beauty, and Bach in Anthony Minghella’s film Breaking and Entering.

Born into a musical family in Sarajevo, and raised in the UK, Ivana studied at the University of Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music. Her teachers include Niel Immelman, Peter Bithell and James Gibb. Additionally, Ivana has had the opportunity to study with esteemed musicians such as Menahem Pressler, Ferenc Rados, Dmitry Bashkirov, Boris Berman, Stephen Kovacevich and Leif Ove Andsnes. Ivana is indebted to the support of many trusts, including the Frankopan Fund (Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts), the MBF, The Solti Foundation, The Nicholas Boas Trust, The Richard Carne Trust and the RVW Trust. Ivana is proud to be an Ambassador for the charity ‘Music Action International’.

www.ivanagavric.com

For one night only, audiences at the Wigmore Hall were treated to a glimpse of the hall’s origins, in those pre-First World War days when it was Bechstein Hall and home to the German piano maker C. Bechstein’s London showroom.

bechstein-hall

When Bechstein Hall opened in 1901, Bechstein was Europe’s leading piano maker (it produced 5000 pianos in 1901),  its instruments preferred by most pianists outside America, where Steinway predominated. The Bechstein piano company built similar concert halls in Paris and St Petersburg to showcase its instruments and the leading performers and singers of the day. With its special barrel roof “shoebox” design, beloved of many musicians, the hall still boasts a fine acoustic, while its small size (its capacity is c600 seats) makes it the perfect place to enjoy intimate chamber and piano recitals.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Bechstein Hall on London’s Wigmore Street was promoted as the best of places for intimate music making, and boasted unrivaled comfort and facilities for patrons and artists with its elegant green room up a short flight of stairs behind the stage (so that singers did not arrive on stage breathless). At the time of its opening, concert life and leisure in general in London were enjoying something of a revolution. Theatres and music halls were opening across the west end, a wide public was being introduced to the experience of shopping for pleasure in the new “department stores” (Selfridges is a mere 10 minute walk, at the most, from Wigmore Street), and with cheap and efficient public transport, it was easy for people to enjoy these delights in the centre of the metropolis. A new breed of international concert promoters, agents and impresarios, such as Robert Newman, who with conductor Henry Wood founded the world-famous Proms, were dedicated to organising high-quality recitals, and Bechstein Hall alone scheduled two hundred concerts a year.

During the First World War, it became increasingly difficult for Bechstein Hall to trade viably. Strong anti-German sentiments and the passing of the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act 1916 led to the hall’s closure in June 1916, and all property including the concert hall and the showrooms was seized and summarily closed. The hall was sold at auction to Debenhams, was rechristened Wigmore Hall and opened under its new name in 1917. Today Wigmore Hall enjoys an international reputation for high-quality music in an elegant and intimate setting.

To give the modern audience a flavour of those halcyon pre-war days of concertising in London, the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave a concert on an 1899 Bechstein grand piano, a piano which may well have been sold out of the Bechstein piano showroom next door to the hall on Wigmore Street.  The concert, which included music by composers active at the time when the Bechstein piano company was at the height of its powers, was preceded by a talk with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Peter Salisbury, a leading piano technician who restored the piano, and composer Julian Anderson, whose work ‘Sensation’, written for Pierre-Laurent, had its London premiere at the concert.

As Pierre-Laurent Aimard explained, the event was the culmination of a long-held dream: to present a concert of the kind of repertoire and composers – and instrument – contemporary with the hall when it first opened. Peter Salisbury talked about the difficulties of preparing a piano for a specific hall, for each space has its own distinct acoustic and the piano must be adjusted and voiced to suit venue, performer and repertoire. When the 1899 Bechstein was brought into Wigmore Hall, Peter noted how closely instrument and venue suited each other, evidence that Bechstein built concert halls to showcase their instruments at their best – and vice versa!

Prior to the First War, piano design and manufacture was still evolving, and each make had its own distinct sound and character. Bechsteins of this period are notable for their special resonance and projection, which result from their manufacturing process. Pierre-Laurent commented on the piano’s uniquely rich palette of colour and tones, combined with great clarity. Every note seems to have “many overtones”, resulting in an orchestral sound which is rich but not cloying.

For composer Julian Anderson, the Bechstein piano has a special place in his life: his own piano is a 1913 Bechstein, passed on to him from his father, and is the instrument on which he composes. He admitted a “great affection for the Bechstein tone”, and that it has a range of colour which “encourages metaphor” and makes it easier to imagine other sounds or instruments when composing.

The 1899 Bechstein has been restored by Peter Salisbury and retains the original soundboard and bridge. A new mechanical action was fitted to provide technical accuracy, with new hammers voiced according to Bechstein’s original sound concert. An attractive instrument with a polished black case with scrolled details, the piano has turned legs and a fan-shaped music desk. The instrument is 275 cms (9 foot)long, with 88 notes (not all pianos were at that time – my Bechstein has 85 keys), and it took 3 months to rebuild it fully. For Peter the piano represents “a portal to the past, a lost era of tonal distinction”.

Peter Salisbury’s 1899 Bechstein concert grand on the stage at a Wigmore Hall

After 1910, piano design and manufacture became standardised across makes, and today most concert pianos (most commonly Steinway) have a consistency of sound and touch which enables performers to move fairly effortlessly between a piano in a Tokyo concert hall and one in London or New York. Concert pianos have also grown bigger to project into larger halls, and in the 10 years that I’ve been going t concerts regularly, I’ve noticed the sound of these pianos is, generally, much brighter and often quite strident.

As the owner of a 1913 Bechstein model A, I was very curious to hear this slightly older piano in a concert setting in an acoustic for which it was built. The programme included music by Liszt (the first version of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses), Scriabin and Debussy (both of whom owned Bechstein pianos), Julian Anderson (b.1967)!and Nikoly Obukhov, a colouristic Russian composer whose music bridges the Russian and French compositional traditions of the first decade of the twentieth century. The first half of the concert proceeded without interruption for applause (something with several audience members near me seemed to find quite “difficult”, though I enjoyed the flow of music from one composer to another). From the first notes of the Liszt, I felt I was hearing my own piano in concert – those distinct resonances and layers of colour which drew me to my instrument when I first played it in my tuner’s workshop were made more explicit in Pierre-Laurent’s hands. A surprisingly deep bass resonance, but clear and bell-like, without the chocolatey Sachertorte richness of a Bosendorfer, and a remarkable sustain with unexpected harmonics evident in the sound decay. In the Scriabin pieces, the piano’s multi-faceted sound came to the fore, responding perfectly to Scriabin’s sensual textures with harmonies superimposed on different registers and layered overtones.

The selection of Debussy’s Études was particularly fascinating. Here Pierre-Laurent balanced clarity with tonal sensitivity and the studies burst into to life with delightful shifting colours. The sweet lucid treble was wonderful, so different to the rather strident treble sound one finds in modern instruments, and there were further opportunities to enjoy this sound in the works by Julian Anderson and Nikolay Obukhov. Despite the piano’s resonance and sustain, there was no sense of the sound being too big or overly domineering (again an issue, for me at least, with modern concert grands in medium-sized or small venues). For me, the highlights of the evening, aside from the opportunity to hear this period piano in concert, were the works Debussy and Obukhov – had I not seen the programme, I would have thought the latter was post-Vingt Regards Messiaen, yet this was music written prior to the Russian Revolution, avant-garde and way ahead of its time.

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Wigmore Hall today (photo: The Telegraph)