In my list of free London classical music venues I failed to include the Regent Hall. Mostly because I’ve never been there before. I was aware of the fact that they put on free concerts every Friday lunchtime not a stone’s throw from the ‘shopper’s paradise’ of Oxford Circus. What luck that the rain drove me inside on the off chance of finding something good. I hit gold.
The venue is owned by the Salvation Army, indeed it bills itself as the only church on Oxford Street, and I was happy to give a donation. Although I’m no Christian evangelist I do wholeheartedly support their charitable work. I’ve guided a lot on the history of the Salvation Army, especially in the East End where two statues of General Booth on the Mile End Road are excellent visual cues for introducing the history of the East End in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Most of the concert crowd looked like habitués of the Army’s excellent on-site café, and I can thoroughly recommend another café of theirs in the City of London next to the Millennium Bridge which offers the best value lunch in the Square Mile.
For a concert though the venue itself is decidedly odd. I assume it’s designed as a space of worship (as a lot of these lunchtime venues are); this is not necessarily in itself a drawback. However, more specifically it seems designed as a space for preaching, and this is. The piano (in this case`) was on a fairly raised platform from the punters which doesn’t really aid in the creation of the kind of intimate atmosphere that lends itself to chamber music. This also means that in order to go off and on again for encores/bows the performer must descend and ascend a fair number of stairs, which is all a bit of a faff.*
With the piano way up there and all kinds of bits and bobs to baffle the music the acoustic isn’t that great either but on this occasion the pianist, Simone Alessandro Tavoni, was outstanding enough to cut through all of the drawbacks and make you forget where you were and what you were looking at. Introduced as a very good-looking player (as if that matters?) he warmed up with a bit of Schumann and Liszt. But what I was waiting for was Prokoviev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 Op. 83.
I can’t remember who performed this piece the first time I heard it but he was Russian and it was on the South Bank. I think it was Igor Levitt (no relation) and I was utterly transfixed by it. I remember the pianist being an absolute wringing mess at the end, through both musical intensity and sheer physical effort. Tavoni, while not being in quite that class, nevertheless delivered a driving, intense reading and quite rightly didn’t follow it with an encore.**
When I first heard the piece I became slightly obsessed with its history and background. I learnt how it was written by Prokofiev at a time of extreme crisis in the Soviet Union in 1943 in response to the threat of Nazi Germany from without and the menace of Stalinist repression within. This story then led me to discover more of Sviatoslav Richter (of whom I’d previously known nothing) and his extraordinary life as an artist in the twentieth century.***
So from one evening at a concert a whole new world and aspect of history was opened up to me. It was thrilling! And Tavoni brought that whole feeling back again. I hope (and believe) he will go on to bigger and better stages. He’s playing at the Royal College with fellow students in an early evening concert. I hope to find the time to get down to South Ken myself and discover more new music.
* I’m not really a fan of the encore at any time but more especially in the evening. I would like to think that I’m the kind of music lover who is so carried away by the genius of a performer that I could sit there all night listening to them. Unfortunately the rather more prosaic realities of train timetables and bladder limits are more often on my mind as the applause begins at the ‘end’ of a gig. In fact I like it when performers just do the shit they came to do and then get off. The best of performances leave you emotionally drained at the end of the programme and not really in the mood for a Bach/Chopin/Schubert/Debussy lollipop and more in the mood for a consolatory/celebratory whiskey.
And a horsepiss.
** A visceral evocation of the life and death struggle between Communism and Fascism amid the terror of the Stalinist police state isn’t something that lends itself to a digestif of a twinkly Chopin Mazurka or some such other miniature afterthought.
*** He premiered the Sonata in 1943 and you can hear him play it here. Works every time. The first time I heard the Prok PS7 I liked to chat to other people interested in music on a forum on Facebook and I wrote a post slightly gushing thing about the concert, asking other people where they’d first heard it. A troll came back with the withering, ‘Oh that old warhorse.’ There is a difference between sounding clever and being intelligent. The former looks within, the latter engages with the world.
Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).