Rhinegold Photo credit: © Kevin Day
Howard Shelley leads the London Mozart Players in a concerto at St John’s Smith Square

Jeremy Nicholas

London Mozart Players launches Piano Explored 2021 with Howard Shelley

7:04, 15th February 2021

Howard Shelley unearths some unusual specimens of the piano concerto repertoire in his latest Piano Explored series with the London Mozart Players

Music lovers are all feeling like parched travellers crawling across the desert in search of water, such is the thirst, still largely unquenched, for live concertgoing. In London, one oasis that stretches across the horizon is the latest Piano Explored series with the London Mozart Players (LMP) led from the keyboard by their conductor laureate Howard Shelley. Delayed from October 2020 to a starting date of 10 February this year, the series at the historic church of St John’s Smith Square is being filmed for online streaming and, if government rules allow, will open up to a socially distanced audience as we go into the spring.

So, some good news for concertgoers at last. And there are some surprises in store too: piano concertos by Moscheles and Hummel alongside more familiar fare from Mozart and Saint-Saëns. I asked Howard Shelley about this leap into the little-known. ‘We have a very loyal audience and as we’ve already done all the Beethoven concertos twice, along with the Grieg, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich concertos, I thought it was safe to try a few more unusual composers on our audience. That’s how I came up with Moscheles and Hummel. We did Cramer last season and that went down very well. Of course, these works really need more than one hearing to judge them, but they certainly contain a lot of beautiful music.’

The LMP and Shelley are also presenting the unusual pairings of Mozart’s K413 with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2, and Mozart’s rarely heard K238 with Moscheles’ First Piano Concerto. ‘Having done nearly all the Mozart concertos,’ Shelley adds, ‘I wanted to finish the job and play some of the early ones which are less well known – and, incidentally, less like Mozart. Both of these lovely works are interesting in the way they show Mozart’s early development. Moscheles’ First Piano Concerto is also an early work and not representative of his fully developed style, which became much more dramatic and virtuosic. But it shows clearly how he loved Mozart. It’s a beautiful, smiling, vivacious, lyrical piece.’

In 2019, Shelley played Hummel’s seldom-programmed F major Concerto in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, but I wondered when the last time Hummel’s Op 110 or Moscheles’ Concerto No 1 were last heard in a major venue? ‘Well, Moscheles has been forgotten but he was a very important figure in the development of music. This is the thing about Hummel and Moscheles: they both played vital roles in everything that was going on in the era of the piano’s development.’

Shelley is convinced that the lockdown is building a greater appetite for live music than before. ‘I think it has created a huge pent-up demand, from what people say to me. Because streaming can only take you so far, especially given the variability of sound quality for those in poor broadband areas. You can witness quasi-live performances but you’re not always going to experience the fulness of live sound, no matter how good the recording equipment. People are desperate to hear something in a live concert setting. So, yes, they will probably listen with more open ears to any type of music.’

Howard Shelley: ‘Hummel and Moscheles played vital roles in the era of the piano’s development’

No one has done more than Shelley, with his myriad recordings for the Hyperion and Chandos labels, to revive the forgotten and once-popular concerto repertoire of the 19th century. I suggest that European venues are more eager than those in the UK to programme rarer concertos. Shelly concurs. ‘I think audiences and orchestras there are more used to the model of subscription concert series. So promoters know they are more secure financially and can take risks, even if a certain composer might bring their audience down a bit. The places where I’ve played more unusual repertoire tend to be those that I go to regularly, where the audience comes through loyalty. That makes it easier to programme these lesser-known works, knowing the audience is open to trying them.’

A special feature of the Piano Explored series is the audience talk Shelley gives on each work. ‘It’s all quite relaxed. I’ll turn to the orchestra and say, “Can you play bar 50,” and they’ll rustle their papers to find the place in the score for us to demonstrate – so the audience can make links with what they are about to hear. For instance, with Mozart I’ll quite often compare one concerto with another and show he goes back to a similar idea. It’s astonishing how he wrote so many concertos yet effectively never repeated himself. I think the reason Mozart’s work seems so perfect and well-proportioned is because, although his tunes all sound so fantastically different, they have very strong things in common that bind them all altogether.’

International Piano readers will receive a £1 discount off tickets for Piano Explored online concerts purchased directly via the LMP website using code LMPPIANO1
londonmozartplayers.com/piano-explored

A 20 per cent discount is also available for tickets to the concerts on 14 April, 27 April and 26 May purchased via the St John’s Smith Square website using code INTPIANO20
sjss.org.uk/whats-on

CONCERT 1 | Now available ONLINE
Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto 2 in G minor Op 22
Mendelssohn Capriccio brillant in B minor Op 22

CONCERT 2 | Wednesday 10 March, 1:05pm / ONLINE from 18 March, 1:05pm
Mozart Piano Concerto No 21 in C major K 467

CONCERT 3 | Wednesday 14 April, 1:05pm / ONLINE from 22 April, 1:05pm
Hummel Piano Concerto No 4 in E major Op 110, ‘Les Adieux’

CONCERT 4 | Tuesday 27 April, 1:05pm / ONLINE from 13 May, 1:05pm
Mozart Piano Concerto No 11 in F major K 413
Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 2 in F major Op 102

CONCERT 5 | Wednesday 26 May, 1:05pm / potentially LIVESTREAMED
Mozart Piano Concerto No 6 in B-flat major K 238
Moscheles Piano Concerto No 1 in F major Op 45

All concerts will remain available to view online for six months (except the Shostakovich concert on 13 May – 30 days only)

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