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REVIEW: Martha Argerich at Manchester International Festival

15 July 2013

© Adriano Heitman

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Martha Argerich
Manchester International Festival
, 12 July

A few heart-stopping moments of silence preceded Martha Argerich’s entrance onto the stage at the Manchester International Festival. The legendary Argentinian pianist – who in recent years has become as famous for cancelling concerts at the last minute as for her dazzling and unfading artistry – had already made a last-minute change to the programme, opting to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 1 instead of the billed Shostakovich concerto for piano and trumpet.

But eventually she appeared from the wings, to the relief and delight of an audience eagerly anticipating her first appearance in Manchester for more than 50 years. Argerich had been invited to play with Manchester Camerata, as part of the Manchester International Festival, because of her reportedly close relationship with the chamber orchestra’s new principal conductor, Gábor Takács-Nagy.

Argerich’s Beethoven was tender and contemplative, eschewing the tense, edge-of-seat approach taken by some interpreters; but there was certainly no lack of attack in her performance. Now 72 years old, Argerich has lost none of the clarity of touch and that has earned her such a dedicated and adoring cohort of fans. Those fans rose to their feet at the conclusion of the concerto, rewarding her with a standing ovation and the kind of applause more typically reserved for a rock star.

And there was more to come: with the cheers still ringing out across the auditorium, Argerich suddenly sat back down at the piano and launched into a rare encore. Her account of Traumes Wirren from the Schumann Fantasiestücke Op 12 sizzled and danced, its fiendish runs dispatched with stunning accuracy and a rapt sense of playfulness.

Argerich’s appearance was preceded by a spirited performance of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, and followed by Arvo Pärt’s haunting Lamentate. Both of these pieces featured another pianist, 27-year-old Frenchman David Kadouch. The Pärt in particular revealed a deeply sensitive musical intellect, with Kadouch providing many of the highlights of an arrestingly beautiful performance.

Manchester International Festival runs until 21 July

Steinway agrees takeover by Kohlberg & Co

2 July 2013

Lang Lang: one of Steinway's most famous supporters
Lang Lang: one of Steinway's most famous supporters

US piano maker Steinway Musical Instruments has agreed to be bought by private equity group Kohlberg & Co in a $438m deal.

The 160-year-old company, famous around the world for its handmade grand pianos, had previously stated that it was not for sale, following a 17-month exploration of strategic alternatives (as reported in issue 18). The Financial Times (FT) commented that: ‘The deal is the latest indication of the bets private equity groups are making in the luxury goods sector as they seek to profit from the recovering finances of the wealthy.’ Steinway’s board unanimously recommended the offer and expects to close the transaction later this year. Kohlberg plans to expand Steinway’s global reach by exploiting emerging markets in Asia.

The Massachusetts-based company ­– whose pianos have been used by pianists such as Sergei Rachmaninov and Lang Lang ­– said in March it would sell its 88-year-old Steinway Hall building, which is across the street from Carnegie Hall in New York, for $46.3m. The company makes most of its earnings from high-end grand piano sales. From 2005 to 2008, grand piano sales fell an average of 20 per cent annually in the US, reported the FT, and the financial downturn further constrained demand.

The Steinway family sold the company, which was founded in 1853 in a loft on Manhattan’s lower west side, to entertainment group CBS in 1972. Since 1996 Steinway has been traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker LVB, for Ludwig van Beethoven.

Rare Conover piano once owned by Liberace is restored

28 June 2013

The piano in Forsyth’s workshop with technician Stuart Grant
The piano in Forsyth’s workshop with technician Stuart Grant

The Conover in Liberace’s house
The Conover in Liberace’s house

Independent music shop Forsyth’s in Manchester has restored a rare Conover piano that was once owned by Liberace. The ‘Pompadour’ model is named after the 18th century French design it emulates. It is thought that there are only three pianos of this type in existence.

The newly restored upright grand was purchased by a Liberace enthusiast from Manchester who bid against buyers from America, France and China in a London auction room. One of Forsyth’s specialists, Paul Cowperthwaite, was on hand during the auction to offer advice on its condition.

Liberace’s philosophy was ‘too much of a good thing is wonderful’ and his extravagant tastes extended to his pianos; many of which were opulently decorated and embellished, as illustrated in the recent HBO biopic Behind the Candelabra. The ‘Pompadour’ was a particularly challenging project to work on due to the piano’s age and the complexity of its structure and design. Unusually, the centre of the soundboard is directly in front of the pianist’s head and so the sound is very immediate and direct.

‘We set to work to make it behave and sound like a musical instrument, not a piece of furniture’, says Cowperthwaite. ‘Conover pianos are rare and Liberace only owned this one upright grand. This piano has a unique history. The restoration was not easy and took about a month and a half. We had not worked on an action of this type before and the design is not like anything we’ve seen before. On an upright piano the hammers strike away from the pianist; but on this instrument the hammers move towards the pianist.’

The new owner, a professional musician who would like to remain anonymous, has the instrument in his home. On Liberace’s birthday on 16 May the owner held a gathering in honour of the pianist, and performed on the restored piano. 

This article was amended on 12 July. The original piece stated an incorrect cost of the piano. The restoration cost has not been disclosed

Controversy over 'wrong' note in Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto 

27 June 2013

Hans von Bülow: was he responsible for the mysterious correction?
Hans von Bülow: was he responsible for the mysterious correction?© Tully Potter Collection

Pianist Stephen Hough has uncovered evidence to support his theory that there is a ‘wrong’ note in Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto.

Amid discussion with the Tchaikovsky Research website about three different versions of the opening of the concerto – which originally featured spread arpeggios in the piano part, rather than the heroic chords known today – Hough discovered a correction in blue pencil within the manuscript of the first version of the concerto.

The Telegraph blogger referred to the find as ‘the most exciting musical discovery of my life’. Hough suggests that the ‘F’ in the flute part at the start of the second movement should be a ‘B flat’. The ‘F’ is in all scores (except Gerald Abrahams’s Eulenberg edition with no footnote or explanation) and on virtually all recordings (except Yevgeny Sudbin’s). Hough wrote: ‘I played it a few times in concerts with the “F” corrected to a “B flat” but only my instinct was my guide, and when I came to record it I felt I had to abide by the evidence rather than change a note according to my taste and preference.’

Hough’s musical defence of the ‘B flat’ includes the following: the theme only ever appears once with the F, the shape of the four-bar theme is a fifth up and a fifth down – spoilt by the appearance of the ‘F’, and when, in the coda, there is a change to two ‘A flats’ there is a change from the pattern – which has more impact if all the other times it has reached up to the ‘B flat’.

The correction in the manuscript was originally thought to have been made by Tchaikovsky, but Brett Langston, the historian and Tchaikovsky expert, revealed that the document was actually a copyist’s manuscript prepared for Hans von Bülow when he travelled round the world giving the very first performances of the concerto.

It is, however, the ‘cleanest’ version of the original score. Tchaikovsky’s autograph is riddled with later additions and corrections made by many different people over a long period of time, and unfortunately it is not yet available in digital form for detailed scrutiny.

Langston wrote to Hough: ‘It seems reasonable to assume that the correction in the Berlin manuscript would have been made by Bülow himself. As to whether Tchaikovsky knew and approved this – we don’t have evidence either way. It’s remarkable that there are so many questions concerning the text of the concerto that we still can’t answer after more than 120 years, but that’s why the editors of the new critical edition are seeking as many early editions as possible, in an attempt to peel back the various layers to (hopefully) establish which of them were authorised by the composer.’ 

Winners of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition announced

11 June 2013

Silver Medalist Beatrice Rana
Silver Medalist Beatrice Rana© Julien Faugere

The Texas-based Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has concluded its 14th instalment and named Vadym Kholodenko, 26, as recipient of the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Gold Medal and Van Cliburn Winner's Cup.

The silver medalist is Beatrice Rana, 20, Italy (IP’s One to Watch in issue 19, May/June edition). The crystal award winner is Sean Chen, 24, from the US.

Kholodenko, who hails from Ukraine, will receive a cash award of $50,000; career management and international and US concert tours for the three concert seasons following the Competition; studio and live recordings produced by harmonia mundi usa; and performance attire provided by Neiman Marcus.

Rana and Chen will each receive a cash award of $20,000; career management and US concert tours for the three concert seasons following the Competition; and a live recording produced by harmonia mundi usa of Competition performances. 

The remaining three finalists will receive cash awards of $10,000 each, and concert tours and management for three concert seasons. They are Fei-Fei Dong, 22, China; Nikita Mndoyants, 24, Russia; and Tomoki Sakata, 19, Japan.


The Steven de Groote Memorial Award for the Best Performance of Chamber Music, with a cash prize of $6,000, was awarded to Vadym Kholodenko, 26, Ukraine. 

The Beverley Taylor Smith Award for the Best Performance of a New Work, with a cash prize of $5,000, was awarded to Vadym Kholodenko, 26, Ukraine.

The winner of the John Giordano Jury Discretionary Award, with a cash prize of $4,000, is Steven Lin, 24, United States.

The winner of the Raymond E. Buck Jury Discretionary Award, with a cash prize of $4,000, is Alessandro Deljavan, 26, Italy.

The winner of the Jury Discretionary Award, with a cash prize of $4,000, is Claire Huangci, 23, United States.

The Audience Award was voted on by almost 24,000 visitors to www.cliburn.org. The Audience Award winner, Beatrice Rana, will receive a cash award of $2,500.

The semifinalists will receive cash awards of $5,000 each. Preliminary Round competitors will receive cash awards of $1,000 each.

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