Posts Tagged ‘Piano’

Tomasz Lis

April 29, 2019

Chopin. Good at the piano.

It’s a long time since I wrote about music. Not because I haven’t been to anything interesting but more because I got out of the habit. To review big concerts or productions seems pointless when the major critics/media outlets cover that kind of thing quite well.* And while I’ve been to dozens of small concerts over the past few years I haven’t come across many that were outstanding, even if most of them were enjoyable.

Well, yesterday I did attend a small concert of disproportionate excellence to the venue and crowd, Tomasz Lis performing for the Chopin Society at Westminster Cathedral Hall. The first half of Mozart and Bach was good but would have benefitted from sticking to a rondo and Partita – the Bach cantatas, while crowd pleasers, gave us a little too much of a good thing before the bog break. It didn’t help that Bach had seemingly written his Partita less as a solo piece than a chamber work for piano, hearing aid and death rattle.

Fortunately, the excellence of Lis’s Chopin playing in the second half was such that I didn’t even notice the grunts, coughs, mumblings and general crapness of the Westminster crew. His playing was a of a technical standard and emotional intensity that few of the pianists I’ve seen perform this material (and that’s a lot) have been able to match. An encore of Bach’s DMinor Concerto (cribbed from an oboe piece of Montecello) capped off a perfect sequence of music.

It’s subjective I know but on this performance I do hope Mr Lis gets a gig in the splendid venue he deserves very soon.

*One exception to this being the absence of coverage of Good Cop/Bad Cop’s gig at King Tut’s the other week. Alas, Matt Helders’ début as a frontman was one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen. And that includes Radioheads’ bizarre outing as support to The Sultans of Ping at the Riverside in around 1991. Never has a support act been so misaligned with the headliner. I can still picture the beer bottles of disgruntled Ping-ites raining onto the stage.


Matt Helders’ moonface shines through the luminescent fog of his own incompetence.

Another London classical music venue

September 27, 2015

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.

On small museums

June 28, 2015

This post picks up on something I wrote previously about the Royal Academy of Music and comes in a week when I went back to RAM for an extraordinary celebration of the work of Erik Satie. It was an impromptu visit; an expected evening with friends having fallen through I was at a loose end between finishing in the library and going to work in the evening. Impromptu often turns into serendipitous though doesn’t it?

Erik Satie. Dude.

Erik Satie. Dude.

Satie is someone whose work most people will be familiar with if only for its overuse by ‘thoughtful’ documentaries. The Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes can become hideously groan-inducing when used to accompany fuzzy slo-mo footage of falling autumn leaves.

Of course Louis Malle was the man who saw the steel below the melancholy of the pieces in using them for the sound track to Le Feu Follet, and I think if you’ve seen the film it’s hard to hear them again without recalling the quiet despair of Maurice Ronet. By contrast it’s enough for one to reach Alain Leroy-like for the service revolver when one hears yet one more hackneyed documentary reaching into the Satie back catalogue for pathos.

But that’s beside the point, the evening on Friday was a joyful one. A wide variety of Satie’s short pieces, accompanied by his very funny, crystalline aperçus delivered by a talented bunch of performers.* The treat of the evening was a showing of Entr’acte, René Clair’s surrealist silent film, accompanied by Satie’s music on piano and percussion.

On the Set of Entr'acte

On the Set of Entr’acte

I’d seen the film twice previously (and you can see it here on youtube) – once at the Man Ray/Picabia show at Tate Modern and another time at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with full orchestra under Charles Hazelwood. The Tate was in a small, dark room with tinny music (as I remember) … it being in the show because Picabia also collaborated on the film (there’s a very funny scene of him and Satie jumping up and down in slow motion).

The Hazelwood was okay as I remember but didn’t have as profound an effect as Friday. A big show at the QEH lacked the intimacy of being right next to the musicians and squeezed into a small auditorium at the RAM. Two pianists sharing one piano with two percussionists performing the score was perfect at capturing the home-made essence of the film, which is a ramshackle series of sketches using primitive special effects that have the paradoxical effect of giving a feeling of modernity.

And the good humour of it! Satie and Picabia bouncing around in middle age and having a whale of a time in a way that really radiated from the screen. Looking at the crowd it reminded me of the scene in Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants where the camera watches the joyfaced schoolboys watching Charlie Chaplin and it made me think that in these days of monster festivals (yes, it’s Glastonbury weekend) isn’t it a pleasure to be able to sit somewhere quiet and companionable for an hour that you didn’t even know you were going to have.

Such surprises can come through music but also in museums. I decided this year to privilege visiting those museums that I’ve never got round to visiting. So much as I love the big beasts it’s the Year of the Small Museum for me. Of which the RAM has an excellent example.** One of the regrets of the Satie evening was that I hadn’t slunk out of the library earlier in order to go to a concert of baroque and classical keyboard music held in the Keyboard room of the Museum.

Keyboard room at the RAM Museum

Keyboard room at the RAM Museum

On my first visit to the museum this was the absolute highlight. But imagine seeing and listening to these machines in action! A selection of instruments that tell the tale of the development of the instrument, and more pertinently to my own work the centrality of London in that development. John Broadwood is probably the most famous of the London piano makers but they have a map there which shows how there were piano workshops all over Soho, Fitzrovia and beyond in the nineteenth century, competing and innovating in a thriving market.


And it made me wonder if there were a possibility that in this back to the analogue age there might ever be the chance to revive a piano workshop on Great Pulteney Street. Where craftsmen produce bespoke machines to rival the big beasts of Steinway and Yamaha in the same way that small bicycle manufacturers are now finding a niche in their market.

It’s a dream. I want a hipster joanna.

* The individuals are named below …

Cast list

Cast list

** And it’s free

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