Unity of Conception
MALCOLM TROUP was at the
BPSE Summer Festival in London
A succession of phenomenally talented instrumentalists helped to lift this year's BPSE Summer Festival at Regent Hall, in memory of BPSE Co-Founder the late Carola Grindea, onto a new and higher plane of musical superlatives. I say 'instrumentalists' advisedly because, thanks to the organisational skills of pianist and RCM professor Julian Jacobson, the Festival opened [24 July 2009] with a rare Beethovenian double-bill not often heard in such relaxed surroundings. For the first half, he was joined by his professional 'friends': Chris O'Neal (oboe); Tony Lamb (clarinet); Philip Gibbon (bassoon); and Katie Pryce (horn) in a superb performance of Beethoven's early Quintet for Piano and Winds Op 16 and, for the second half, we had the 'other' Piano Trio No 2 from the same Op 70 as that of the celebrated 'Ghost' Trio, with accomplished Greenwich Trio violinist Lana Trotvsek and cellist Pál Banda. A fascinating glimpse behind-the-scenes of what this called for in terms of give-and-take on the part of pianist Julian Jacobson -- one of the finest chamber musicians and coaches in the country, quite apart from his fame as a soloist of distinction -- can be found in his insider-review elsewhere in Music & Vision. Needless to say, all such hazards as described there were triumphantly overcome in performance which, far from being under-rehearsed, sounded as if the group had already taken it on tour -- which is the only course I could recommend after such matchless playing by both wind-players and pianist.
The following Monday 27 July was occupied by Coady Green, an outstanding Australian pianist who has already won well-nigh all the awards and prizes that his great continent has to offer, so has come to continue his winning streak in Europe. Alas, it fell on a day when I had a concert of my own to contend with but, on my return, I received rapt reports of the impression he had made with his Schubert Sonata D664, Beethoven Fantasy Op 77 and Liszt's Pensées des morts and Funerailles, though in the latter the question was raised as to why he needed the music at all. At any rate, it was a welcome return-visit, filling in at short notice to avoid an awkward cancellation. Wednesday 29 July's recital by the fair Evelyne -- youngest of the proud Berezofsky dynasty -- has already been reviewed elsewhere in Music & Vision so it leaves me free to devote the remainder of my review to our three remaining stars: Mishka Momen, Aisa Ijiri and, most of all, Riyad Nicolas -- a name to remember!
Mishka Momen, whom we enjoyed hearing on Friday 31 July, was the then thirteen-year-old prodigy who leapt to fame through winning the New York Leschetizky Competition with her performance of Beethoven's Third Concerto in Milken Hall. The Beethoven Piano Society of Europe and, more especially, its late and bitterly lamented co-Founder Carola Grindea have had her in their sights ever since -- not only playing yearly recitals for us but having been chosen to play at the launch of Carola's valedictory book Great Pianists and Pedagogues in Conversation -- so it was particularly appropriate that she should be chosen to play in this Memorial Festival for Carola. Indeed, even before the Festival had taken shape, she had been on the telephone to me suggesting a memorial tribute to her mentor -- an idea which subsequently was to take over the whole tenor of the Festival.
The programme showed what strides Mishka has been making since coming to the Guildhall to study with Imogen Cooper: Beethoven's two-movement Opus 90 with its first a minuet by any other name, and its second a Rondo which rippled on like a lullaby in an unbroken chain of semiquavers lulling the listener into a state of resigned beatitude -- both movements beautifully rounded and nuanced with no mannered exaggerations to mar their perfectly chosen tempi -- was an excellent choice for this demure interpreter. She caught to perfection the delicate play between augmentation and diminution which announces the first movement's recapitulation. Her Chopin B minor Sonata No 3 had already made a deep impression on me a month before in Prague where I had been chairman of the jury when she played it as the UK's unique representative in the first European Union Piano Competition of its kind. The coolth and composure with which she tackled this demanding work impressed the jury then as it did me now yet again. But I found myself wondering, too, what price such 'coolth'? Granted it allowed her to project the broad lines of each work with a serene fidelity and detachment which served the music and never the waywardness of the interpreter. However, sometimes I found myself wishing that the heat of Beethoven (not so evident in his Op 90) might thaw out some of that coolth and curiously British reserve so as to permit her to reveal herself as the consummate artist she bears every indication of becoming. It was almost as if Mishka has fashioned her persona out of her previous prodigy status where nothing must obscure the pure focus on the music and that this had become as constrictive as previously it had been liberating. As if it was not enough to have her before our eyes as an elegant young lady with a touch of make-up and eye-liner to enhance her beauty -- we wanted to know that her spirit had matured as well in the years between so that she could begin relating what she played to her existential human experience rather than its occupying only the upper chambers of her musical perception. But with such an enviable talent, it is a pleasure and a privilege to wait confidently as all the qualities necessary to its coming-of-age fall one by one into place.
Aisa Ijiri (Monday 3 August 2009) dazzled us as much for her long green lamé dress with its blue chiffon scarf as for her nimble fingerwork in Beethoven's 'Tempest' Sonata, Schumann-Liszt Widmung and Liszt Ballade No 2. In a Sonata where Beethoven shows us how much can be made of an arpeggiation and a turn as structural principles, Aisa made us sit up with her clean and crisp execution of the difficult paired quavers which provide the second phrase of the opening subject. Her unobtrusive fidelity to Beethoven's pedalling indications for the recitativo passages spoke well for her, although the Adagio was more austere than espressivo, while the finale could have been lighter in texture, particularly the concluding phrase. Pianists put Widmung on their programmes thinking that Liszt's otherwise well-received transcriptions (such as his Schubert Gretchen am Spinnrade) will justify its presence. But not all Liszt transcriptions are so 'hands off' and Widmung certainly milks the original song until it becomes a concert hall cliché -- normally reduced to encore status. For those not put off by Liszt's accretions and unfamiliar with the song itself, Aisa did a creditable job, giving full weight to Liszt's overblown climaxes. For genuine Liszt lovers, however, the high point was reached only with that composer's Second Ballade, where no amount of interlocking octaves could deflect Aisa in the telling of this ultimately tragic tale. Her encore, Chopin-Liszt's 'Mes joies' was surprisingly unlyrical for such a chant polonais, lacking as it did any sense of magic or nostalgia.
The last event of our Summer Festival at Regent Hall (Friday 7 August 2009) might well be confused with the last of the summer wine, so exultant was the 'high' on which it ended and so intoxicating the effect produced on the large public by the last of Liszt's Paganini-Etudes which Syrian pianist Riyad Nicolas had saved as his parting-shot. Even before that, he had given a prodigious recital which rose head and shoulders above everything else we have heard this year: a flawless and insightful account of Beethoven's Op 27 No 1 and yet another interpretation of Chopin's B minor Sonata, something of a firm favourite if not a 'warhorse' at this year's Festival. His was a commanding presence on the platform even before a note had been sounded, from the moment he strode purposefully on and cocked his head attentively as if commanding silence to reign. Indeed, a sense of timing was of the essence in every aspect of his performance as he balanced each play of register, dynamics and articulation against the preceding -- neglecting no passing inspiration but melding all together into an indissoluble unity of conception. For once, here was someone who gave due regard to Chopin's essays in part-writing in the first movement of Op 58. The Scherzo sailed past like a feather borne on the wind while in the sonorous and spacious Adagio he proved himself master of the long line. But it was the Presto which had us all on the edge of our seats at a breakneck speed that made the initiates among us wonder how Riyad Nicolas could possibly keep it up till the end. Nor did he ever let the mounting torrent of sound degenerate into the usual case of keyboard 'assault and battery' -- even more admirable in view of the piano's obvious decline in only the space of a year. Before the rapturous applauses, he gave but a single encore: Liszt's final Paganini-Etude in an account which I for one have never heard bettered! In but a few weeks' time, this thoroughbred from Sulamita Aronovsky's stable of winners will seek his spurs in the Leeds Competition; for today, we his public were only too happy to lend our ears to this paragon of pianistic prestidigitation who, Leeds or no Leeds, will continue to delight discriminating music-lovers for years to come as well as setting a new gold standard for future BPSE Festivals.
Copyright © 18 August 2009