REVIEW: András Schiff’s 60th birthday concert at Wigmore Hall
13 January 2014
‘We are the luckiest 550 people in London tonight’ exclaimed John Gilhooly, director of the Wigmore Hall, at András Schiff’s 60th birthday concert on 21 December. Birthday presents are usually offered to the celebrant, but here it was the audience who received a very special gift, the Goldberg and the Diabelli Variations performed by one of the world’s most inspiring artists. At the close of the recital, Schiff received the prestigious Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society, presented by the HRH the Duke of Kent. Gilhooly, chairman of both the Wigmore Hall and the RPS, highlighted Schiff’s achievements as pianist, educator, and festival director and praised him alongside earlier gold medallists Rubinstein, Horowitz, Arrau, Brendel and Uchida.
Schiff’s programme choice was symbolic: he made his Wigmore debut in 1978 with the Goldberg Variations, and his interpretations of Bach since then have become legendary. By contrast it is only in the last two years that he has performed and recorded the Diabelli Variations, following a much-lauded Beethoven sonata cycle on CD and concert platform. Performing those monumental works side by side underlined their special connection: Beethoven’s 33 variations were both inspired by and aimed to surpass Bach’s 32 variations (counting the Arias).
The concert was mesmeric from start to finish. Alert to every characterisation and contrast imaginable, each individual variation was full of detail, colour, shading and voicing. The 80-minute journey traversed a lifetime of experience with a myriad of moods: lilting and dance-like, quicksilver and racy, contrapuntally steely or springy, the textures finely layered to bring out each line of the canons, ornamentation both delicate and, as with trills and mordents, more emphatic. The passagework flowed seamlessly from one keyboard extreme to the other, shifting from the ebullient and optimistic to the contemplative and reflective.
Overall the brief fast variations (such as the breathtaking toccata-like var. 20) astonished. Schiff became an explorer, pushing at the boundaries of sound and colour. This was especially evident in the tender ‘Alla breve’ var. 22, and the expressive heart of the set, var. 25, played as an expansive nocturne with an air of inner mystique, the chromatic sinewy voicing creating an ambivalent angst that delighted in its own anguish.
Romanticism of a different cast took flight with the Diabelli, a masterly account full of Bachian polyphonic felicities, both tender and ebullient, and shot through with Schumannesque oppositions. The abrupt contrasts of dynamics as from the initial majestic march to the quieter third variation (Beethoven’s original variation 1 from his first 1819 version), was vividly presented. The rumbling bass figures that add ominous chromaticism were handled with just the right emphasis – above all Schiff does not dwell on gestures, and his sound colour is clear, lucid – eschewing any type of pedal blurring. In contrast with the Beethovenian soundworlds of greats like Kempff and Schnabel, Schiff’s sonority self-consciously aims at that of a ‘restorer’, an idea pursued in his double Diabelli recording on two early pianos from 1821 and 1921. Overall this was a reading with finely drawn characters and moods – exhilarating energy in the fast movements, and flowing impressionism in slower variations.
At one point during the witty var. 13, with dry chord pairs swapping high and low registers, one of the pregnant silences was interrupted by an audience member’s loud coughing: unperturbed by this invasive interruption Schiff smiled at the audience to remark ‘very good’ and at a similar silence a few seconds later, gave a telling look; eliciting further audience laughter; it was his way of telling us to relax before switching to the restraint of the ensuing var. 14 with its double dotted rhythms that commanded rapt attention. Further humour emerged in the Mozart parody of var. 22 with uncanny harmonic detail in the glistening grupetti. The final group of variations achieved a visionary sense of arrival and climax, the three purposeful minor variations followed by a tongue-in-cheek fugue that featured startling new voices; the final ethereal minuet attained translucent heights, highlighting its connections to the Arietta of Op. 111.
Indeed we almost believed Schiff when he joked that he was going to play Op. 111 as an encore, but he instead regaled us with a magical miniature, composed in memory of his mother by György Kurtág, his friend and mentor, present in the audience, also a recipient of the RPS Award. It symbolised Schiff’s unique artistic achievement, one which, while saluting its origins, also looked ahead to the future. On the occasion of his 60th birthday we may all wish Andras Schiff many happy returns to the concert platform and, echoing HRH the Duke of Kent’s congratulatory remarks, ‘many more years of glorious music making’.
Piano teachers use crowd funding site to commission new works for pupils
9 January 2014
Commissioning new music is not without expense and heartache, but that hasn’t deterred teachers Betty and Stephen Power from creating contemporary music for their pupils. This year the Powers plan to commission a work from rising star Charlotte Bray and are seeking support online for the funds to pay for it.
The Powers are members of the Cambridge Suzuki Young Musicians (CSYM), a small group of students and parents that has commissioned works from a variety of leading composers including Graham Fitkin, Colin Matthews and Rachel Stott. CSYM pupils were given the opportunity to rehearse with the composers in workshops and masterclasses, and to premiere the pieces in public concerts. Previously, this activity has been funded by a grant from the Britten-Pears Foundation, but the group has now established a ‘crowd funding’ web site to raise funds for the latest commission.
‘Over the past twelve years we have held summer schools where our students have had contact with living composers,’ explains Stephen Power. ‘In 2010 we asked seven composers to write 2-piano pieces for us. We raised money through concerts, practice-a-thons, and were helped with five of the composers by the Britten-Pears Foundation. The intention was to have a set of pieces, one at around Grade 4/5 standard, most around 6/7, and one Grade 8/diploma, that would follow the examples set by Bartók in Microkosmos. Composers Martin Butler, Gary Carpenter, Phil Cashian, Michael Zev Gordon, Colin Matthews, Tarik O’Regan and Rachel Stott produced some wonderful pieces that I hope will someday be taken up by one publisher. Some have been published separately.’
Power met Bray at a concert given by Aldeburgh Young Musicians at Snape Maltings in Suffolk. He invited her to work with his students last summer and there Bray coached the students in her Urban Nocturne for two pianos, and six of her pieces as well as composition. Power believes that it is vital for young people to play contemporary music from an early age, despite the difficulties in securing the necessary resources.
‘Funding has never been easy, and I do think that crowd funding will be useful in the future. Not only to raise money for commissions, but also as a means to spread the word about this music: music that can be played by students, and that is of high quality and uncompromising, deserving a wide dissemination.’
Power hopes that crowd funding – combined with fundraising through pupil concerts and the generosity of audience and family – will raise enough for the Bray commission and for his next project; a commission for a piece for four pianos by Graham Fitkin for 2015.
You can support the project here.
IP issue 23 Jan/Feb 14 amendment
8 January 2014
Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that there was some text duplication on pages 26 and 27 in the last edition of IP. This was due to a production error, for which we apologise profusely. You can download the correct version of the article here. The digital editions have now been updated.
Our thanks go to the contributors who alerted us to this oversight.
Jamie Cullum presents new BBC Radio 4 series Piano Pilgrimage
3 January 2014
Jamie Cullum meets Martin Heckscher, managing director of Heckscher & Company, one of the longest-running piano suppliers in the country
Jazz pianist Jamie Cullum explores the role of the piano in modern life in a new mini series for BBC Radio 4. Piano Pilgrimage, produced by Andrea Rangecroft, promises to debunk certain myths about the demise of the piano industry, as Cullum focuses on success stories across the UK.
As part of his ‘pilgrimage’, Cullum visits the London Borough of Camden where piano historian Dr Alastair Laurence takes him on a tour around the area that, only a century ago, was the world centre of the piano making industry. Cullum meets Heckscher & Company, one of the oldest piano specialists in the country, established in 1883. Managing director Martin Heckscher explains that Camden Town had a distinct advantage as a piano manufacturing base due to its excellent transport infrastructure with the Grand Union Canal and the railway network on the doorstep. In fact, by the late 19th century, at least 100 piano factories were in existence in Camden and neighbouring Kentish Town.
Cullum also travels to the Yorkshire Dales to visit one of the few places left in the country where pianos are still being made from scratch, uncovers some surprising facts about the physics of piano tuning and learns what the instrument meant for women in terms of courtship in the 1800s. Once a film student himself, Cullum looks at the position of the piano in silent cinema and learns about the resurgence of the phenomenon today at an open-air event in south London. The series concludes with a discussion on the piano’s place in pub culture, and features an impromptu sing-a-long with Rockney duo Chas and Dave.
The first episode is on BBC Radio 4 at 10:30am, 4 January
Stephen Hough awarded CBE for services to music
2 January 2014
Stephen Hough has been awarded a CBE for services to music. The award – Commander of the Order of the British Empire – was announced as part of the UK's New Year honours list. A total of 1,195 people have received an award, and women outnumber men for the first time since the Order of the British Empire was founded in 1917.
Other musicians to be honoured include Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins, who also received a CBE.
Composer and conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who is Master of the Queen’s Music, becomes a Companion of Honour.
Hough guest edited the November/December 2013 edition of IP, which is available to purchase here.