Tuesday, 28 August 2018

REVIEW: The 18th Chetham's International Summer School and Festival For Pianists - The Stoller Hall, Chetham's Music School, Manchester.

This annual event, which has resulted in Chetham's hosting the world's largest (and perhaps also most friendly) festival and summer school devoted to the piano, is now in its 18th year, and this course will have seen more than 500 pianists from all corners of the globe come together with 67 pianist / teachers to learn, share, experience, educate and be educated. It is a fantastic and joyous occasion for students on the course, the tutors, and also those, like myself who have just come for the public concerts. It must be a wonderful experience for those on the course to have such intimate and intensive contact with so many international maestros. 

The event takes the form of workshops and lectures throughout the day-times, whilst the evenings in the festival are given over to performances. Some of the performances are given by the resident international faculty, most however from guest pianists who have been delighting audiences with their concert-playing skills for many years.

It is a two-week festival, and with 29 performances over this 12 day period, it would have been almost nigh impossible to have gone to watch all. I did have the opportunity however of catching just a few.

Sunday 19 August - Orchestral Concerto Concert # 1

This concert featured two prominent pianists who played Romantic concerto pieces accompanied by the talented Stockport Symphony Orchestra, and conducted by Chetham's School Of Music's Director Of Music, Stephen Threlfall. Both these tow pieces and the two pieces in the following concert were composed by pure Romantics who were not afraid of wearing their emotions clearly on their sleeves and not letting their feelings get in the way of a damned good tune!

We started with one of my all-time favourite pieces of music - a tone poem for orchestra and solo piano which was written as part of a film score for the 1941 'Dangerous Moonlight'. Richard Addinsell's, 'Warsaw Concerto'. The music depicts the struggle of Warsaw during the second world war, juxtaposed with the romance of the film's leading characters. Written in homage to Rachmaninov, the music is sweeping, grand, often bombastic, often plaintive, but undeniably and beautifully 'Romantic'. This evening the piece was played by 71 year old veteran and piano legend, Seta Tanyel

Following this was Tchaikovsky's exciting and dramatic 2nd piano concerto. In amidst all the exuberance and repetitive chord and melody structures which characterise this piece, there is also a much darker side to the music too; it is not all pomp and frippery. In three movements, this is Tchaikovsky at his best. Not afraid to put all of his emotions, tumultuous as they may be, into the piece, but still keeping the concerto firm in form and never descending into either jingoistic or morose territory as he could easily have done. This evening we were treated to Leslie Howard's interpretation of it. Again, at 70,  another piano legend and veteran performer.

Sunday 19 August - Orchestral Concerto Concert #2

The second concert; which followed after an interval, was of a similar format. Again we were treated to The Stockport Symphony Orchestra with Stephen Threlfall holding the baton.

This time the shorter opening piece was another firm favourite of mine. Rachmaninov's Variations On A Theme Of Paganini. This utterly stunning piece of writing was first heard in 1934, and played by Rachmaninov himself. The piece starts with a variation before we hear the theme, Paganini's Caprice No 24 for solo violin, which is very closely related to the actual theme, and from there the composer develops and moulds this melody into an awe-inspiring array of styles; but it is his variation 18 (Andante Cantabile) that is the most famous and never fails to bring a tear to my eye. Playing this this evening was fellow Russian, also wearing her heart very much on her sleeve for this piece, Dina Parakhina. Wonderful!

The concert and the evening finished with Grieg - yet another of the great Romantics. His piano concerto is a wonderful and evocative piece of music, and as the three movements twist and turn with patriotism, folk melodies and pure joy, it is little wonder that the tunes borrowed by Grieg to form the basis of this concerto have gone on to feature in modern culture such as TV advertising. A bravura interpretation played with style this evening by Peter Fowke.

Wednesday 22 August - Harpsichord Concert by Robyn Koh.

Koh is an ex-pupil of Chetam's who has gone on to find worldwide acclaim, making her professional performance debut in Moscow when only 16.

In this evening's 90-minute recital she played works as varied and as colourful as possible, showcasing the unique sound of the harpsichord. Playing on a modern instrument, designed and painted in the old traditional style it looked somewhat incongruous in the ultra-modern surrounds of The Stoller Hall, and indeed, it could certainly have benefited from modern amplification as the sound produced was extremely quiet - too quiet at times. 

Koh's excellent playing took us on a criss-cross non-chronological journey from High Baroque music to contemporary pieces written especially for the harpsichord. We even heard three movements from the suite, 'Puzzle Pieces' composed for Koh by fellow Chetham's alumnus, Colin Riley which are dedicated to mutual musical friends. These ultra-modern sounds juxtaposed with the more usual harpsichord sounds from the likes of CPE Bach or Scarlatti, made for an interesting and varied programme.

Wednesday 22 August - 2nd Gala Faculty Recital

One of four recitals given by members of the summer school faculty, I stayed after the harpsichord concert to hear this one.

We were treated to 5 pieces played by five virtuosos, with Gemma Beeson starting the concert with four lovely preludes by Debussy. The first. La Cahedrale Engloute was almost symphonic in nature; slow, lyrical, harmonic. This gave way to La Puerta Del Vin, which was an exotic gypsy dance. Bruyeres took us back to terra firma with a slow lullaby, before the final piece, Feux D'Artifice took us on a whirlwind of cascading demi-semi-quavers reminiscent of The Flight Of The Bumblebee.

William Westney was next, and he played the classical and highly dramatic Variations Serieuses by Mandelssohn.

It was then the turn of the evening's announcer, Murray McLachlan to entertain. This is he did in style, playing a transcription for solo piano of the second movement of Rachmaninov's 1st piano concerto. It sounded strange and somehow dislocated from the original, but maybe that is because I only have heard this music before the way it was intended to be played. 

No piano showcase would be complete without including at least one piece by both Chopin and Liszt, and so the final two works this evening ticked those boxes nicely!

Seta Tanyel was the penultimate pianist this evening, and she performed a lovely rendition of  Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise (opus 22) , whilst Leslie Howard finished the evening in pompous Lisztian style with Reminiscences Of Norma; a virtuoso and flamboyant piece of bombastic grandiosity and pomposity - but a jolly good tune and an exciting and wonderful piece nonetheless. What a fantastic finish!

There was, sadly, one problem with this concert, and that was due to utilising two different pianos. I am uncertain why two pianos were required, but having the stage-hands change them between EVERY pianist was seemingly just thoughtless. This could easily have been averted by either having both pianos up and running all the time (the stage was big enough) or having the order of the concert changed to make all those using the same piano play together. Certainly the concert would have run much smoother this way.

Saturday 25 August - Orchestral Concerto Concert #1

The first of two concerto concerts this evening saw The Chester Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stephen Threlfall accompany the virtuoso pianists.  Starting the evening off in a whirlwind of 20th century Americanism was Murray McLachlan playing Gerschwin's fantasia, Rhapsody In Blue. A piece so imbued with American musical and cultural influences of the first half of the 1900s, that it has become almost a curio piece now - something from another place and time. It's a wonderfully evocative and stirring piece nevertheless, and Mclachlan played it with ease and skill. I felt though that the orchestra was a little restraint in this piece, they didn't seem to be too keen to bend the time signatures in the way that true jazz and blues musicians do and can.

Following this and we couldn't have asked for a more  sharp a contrast in both composition and piano-playing style. Where McLachlan was flamboyant and emotive, Eugen Indjic's was centred and controlled. His body never moving - not even the arms. The playing coming simply from his wrists and hands. It was a masterclass in minimalism. 

The piece being played was Schumann's piano concerto in A minor, which has three movements. It starts with a loud and exciting first movement which gives way to a gentle and lyrical andante intermezzo flowing seamlessly into an allegro vivace third movement. Widely regarded as one of the greatest early Romantic composers, this piece lays testament to that claim in abundance, and Indjic's playing of it was nothing short of masterly.

Saturday 25 August - Orchestral Concerto Concert #2

To start this concert, again with the Chester Philharmonic Orchestra under Stephen Threlfall, we were treated to the wonderful Scherzo by Litolff.  This piece, usually played in isolation nowadays is actually a movement from his Concerto Symphonique No 4, and not only was his a prolific composer but was also, like his contemporary Liszt, a brilliant piano virtuoso. It seems such a shame really that his works remain largely unknown and un-played.

This evening our pianist was BingBing Li, and for me, this was the highlight of all the concerts I have thus far seen. The lightness of her touch and her strength of her interpretation was electrifying and made this piece come alive as I haven't heard it played before.Scherzo is Italian and means 'joke', and Li's superb mastery of this piece made it laugh and sparkle throughout the auditorium. 

Following her was no less a talent as Artur Pizarro took to the stage to play Tchaikovsky's 1st piano concerto. The strident ascending chords of the piano pitched against the first melody on the strings is possibly the most precocious and splendid start to any piece of music but surely also defines the nomenclature 'Romantic'. 

One could only sympathise with Pizarro's growing frustration and irritation as the piece progressed however, because the orchestra simply had not practised this piece enough and were unable to keep up with his genius. I thought I heard out-of-tune notes from the string sections, and certainly there were a couple of times when the orchestra was not in sync. His growing frustration at this became more and more obvious to the audience as the piece progressed, as he even made a pistol with his fingers and put it to his temple at one point in utter despair. Perhaps it was a little unprofessional of him to show his grievances so openly, but I also felt extremely sorry for the orchestra too; they are an amateur hobby orchestra, [although still of a high standard] and so there is no way that they should've been expected to have reached the gilded high proficiency Pizarro obviously expected, and I don't feel they should've been put in that position. Most unfortunate.

Monday 27 August - Thomas Hecht: Solo Piano Recital.

Renowned American pianist, currently Professor of Music at Singapore University, delighted the somewhat disappointingly small audience [Bank Holiday?] this afternoon with his mastery and genius. 

Dressed in a black oriental styles silk shirt, he first played Four Ballads by Johannes Brahms.  I did not know these pieces but knowing that they were by Brahms it wasn't difficult to imagine the lush orchestrations that he might have used had they been written for a full orchestra, and his beautiful use of repetitive melody and folk song throughout - even the song of a cuckoo in the third movement! - were nothing short of Romantic genius. 

Hecht's playing was sublime. He has a lightness of touch combined with a firm assuredness which is both firm and flamboyant at one at the same time. Lovely to watch, and even better to listen to. 

For the last two pieces in his recital he chose to go back to his homeland and to a composer of which I know precious little. In fact, until this evening, I had heard only piece of music from this composer to my certain knowledge, and that is his Adagio For Strings.  And so to listen to two further pieces of composer Samuel Barber was  both educational and extremely interesting. 

First Hecht played his Ballade (opus 46) and then followed this with his piano sonata (opus 26). Barber's music seemed to me to be the natural progression of piano music: still very much grounded in the Classical tradition, with dollops of Romantic idealism and influences, but put together by a 20th century mind and American background and style. The sonata had a fairground waltz and a multi-layered jazz fugue amongst other things, and needless to say I loved the music and am now searching out more Barber!

Monday 27 August - Martin Roscoe: Solo Piano Recital.

The second concert this evening was by another hugely talented internationally renowned pianist, Martin Roscoe. 

Roscoe started his recital with two pieces by a prolific but seldom played composer of wonderfully tuneful and Romantic / Early 20th Century music Ernst Von Dohnanyi.  Although he wasn't German, he used the German form of his name since he thought it would give him more status and merit, and despite being Hungarian by birth, it was at that time a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and so Germanic names were just as common. 

Dohnanyi used the music of his homeland and other melodies he knew to wonderful effect as he interpolated them in his works. It is a pity his orchestral works are not played very often these days, they are well worth finding and listening to.

The two piano pieces this evening were also lovely. First was 'Pastorale On An Hungarian Chrsitmas Song' and this was followed by his Rhapsody in C. Both short and deceptively difficult pieces which sound easy.  Roscoe made them sound even more easy of course - that is his genius!

Following this and he finished the concert with a longer work; a piano sonata by Schubert. Much more a part of recital repertoire, and a composer that we have all heard of! Again played beautifully.

Overall this summer school and festival looks like the ideal opportunity for piano enthusiasts everywhere, no matter what stage of proficiency, from beginner to concert pianist, there is something for everyone here; and this inclusiveness, willingness and approachability that is exhibited from all the staff is exceptional. Even as an outsider and audience member this feeling was palpable. 

Reviewers - Matthew Dougall, Chris Benchley and Florian Kutchka.
on - 19 - 27/8/18

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