Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The Chetham's Recitals 2007: Part 5

23 August, 8.30 pm

Vanessa Latarche seems like one of those generous, big-hearted personalities who lights up the places wherever she goes and her recital – originally announced as a selection of J.S.Bach works – affirmed it. Midway through, she announced that she had initially harboured notions of having a leisurely time at Chet’s, with a spot of shopping and “sitting in the garden” to boot. Was she ever so mistaken!

Her Bach – a selection of five Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier – was simply a joy to behold. Far from the dry, didactic Bach some might be accustomed to, her approach was one filled with imagination and varied tone colours. The dirge-like B flat minor Prelude (Book 1) was taken at a moderately fast clip without sacrificing the underlying pathos, and the ensuing five-part fugue was a model of clarity and beauty. The C sharp major Prelude from the same book exhibited a quicksilver staccato technique, although one might have missed Glenn Gould casting a naughty wink in the tongue-in-cheek fugue that followed. I could go on…

She added Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor (Op.35 No.1), a grandiose extrapolation of what old Johann Sebastian might have written had he been a Victorian. Surging waves of arpeggios may have almost submerged the typically Mendelssohnian melody in the Prelude, but the fugue was a gradual but unstoppable force that culminated in the musical equivalent of the Albert Monument. Closing on a resplendent E major chord, and wonderfully crafted by Latarche, this could not have been by anyone else but Mendelssohn.

Her Chopin – the Third Ballade and Waltz in G flat major (Op.70 No.1, as the obligatory encore) – were tasteful and unmannered. The inner voices in the Ballade were the perfect foil to the courtly grace in the waltz’s middle section. Chopin as poet and patrician were more than well served.

24 August, 8.30 pm

On the final evening of Chetham’s Summer School, Artistic Director Murray McLachlan and his stunning platinum-blonde Twiggy-figured other half Kathryn Page performed a rather unique 2-piano recital commemorating the Edvard Grieg Centenary.

McLachlan likened Grieg’s elaborations on Mozart’s solo piano music to “teenagers let loose in a National Trust heritage house”. I shan’t be so uncharitable but add that what Grieg did was not too dissimilar to Godowsky’s treatment of Chopin, except that two pianists instead of one share the spoils. In the reworking of the Fantasia (K.475) and Sonata in C minor (K.457), Page (on Piano I) played the original straight while McLachlan (Piano II) was responsible for the doodlings, which included added harmonies, tremolos, octave doublings and contrapuntal figures.

Purists will baulk at these high calorie confections that turned pure Mozart into dense Brahms but I was pleasantly amused. The Fantasia, which sounded austere in Leon McCawley’s hands three nights before, had become positively warm and fuzzy, while the Sonata with its transfigured sonorities soon became so cloying and morass-like that they soon tired the ear. At any rate, McLachlan and Page’s tight ensemble fit like hand and glove. No big surprise here.

Grieg’s original offerings took the form of two Caprices (Op.37), character pieces of much charm. The first is the swifter of the two while the second a swirling waltz reminiscent of his Lyric Pieces.

Scottish composer Callum Kenmuir’s Rhapsody on Themes of Grieg was a work submitted to a competition that required the completion of Grieg’s Second Piano Concerto in B minor. He did not win, presumably because his conflation of a bunch of isolated fragments sounded more like “Rachmaninov by way of the Warsaw Concerto” (McLachlan’s helpful description, again). The beginning of the opening theme with its octave leap is more similar to Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow, but after that it was more vintage Grieg, replete with vigorous country dances, quotes of the three note motif from the only piano concerto (Op.16) and a rumbling Lisztian cadenza to complete the tribute.

Highly entertaining this may be – and the McLachlans delivered with great panache and aplomb – but no way does this supercede the A minor masterpiece. Kenmuir, a popular composer and bandleader, certainly knew how to out-Grieg Grieg. The encore was delightfully wicked: the Mozart-Grieg Rondo from the Sonata facile in C major (K.545). What a cheerful way to end an eventful and fun-filled festival of piano treats!

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