Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Piano day: Sunday morning at Wigmore Hall and Sunday evening at Conway Hall

Alexandra Dariescu
Alexandra Dariescu
Debussy, Tailleferre, Boulanger, Fauré, Messiaen, Mozart, Schubert, Ravel, Chaminade; Alexandra Dariescu at Wigmore Hall, Cliodna Shanahan & Simon Callaghan at Conway Hall  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 April 2019
Two venues, three pianists, two pianos and a wonderful array of music including three French women

We had something of a piano day at Planet Hugill last Sunday, 14 April 2019. In the morning we attended Alexandra Dariescu's recital at Wigmore Hall where she took us to early 20th century Paris with music by Debussy, Lili Boulanger, Germaine Tailleferre, Gabriel Fauré and Olivier Messiaen. Then in the afternoon I gave the pre-concert talk, A Partial History of the Piano Duet: from domestic entertainment to ballet score at Conway Hall, before Cliodna Shanahan and Simon Callaghan performed a programme of music for piano duet (two pianists, one piano) by Mozart, Schubert, Ravel and our third French woman composer of the day, Cécile Chaminade.

Simon Callaghan (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Simon Callaghan (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
I first attended one of the Wigmore Hall's Sunday morning concerts in the 1980s when sherry and terrible coffee was dispensed at the foot of the staircase (the hall itself was founded in 1901), and the audience seemed to be full of regulars. The Sunday morning concerts seem to still have its familiar audience which lends the occasion a slightly more informal feel, and they still dispense sherry and coffee (but the coffee has certainly improved!). The Sunday concerts at Conway Hall have a long history (they are one of Europe's longest running concert series, dating back to the 19th century though the hall itself younger) yet despite age and a list of distinguished past performers, the event itself is charmingly unassuming and approachable, again with its own regular concert goers. So whilst the two have rather different atmospheres, the one perhaps more casual than the other both have an audience of knowledgeable regulars.

Alexandra Dariescu bookended her programme with two substantial works by Claude Debussy written in 1903/1904, Estampes and L'ile joyeuse. Estampes opened with an atmospheric account of 'Pagodes', exoticism viewed through the filter of Debussy's harmony. By 'La soirée dans Grenade' we noticed a big feature of Dariescu's Debussy, the combination of clarity and strength, haunting fragments of phrases rising out of evocative harmonies. And of course, dazzling fireworks in Jardins sous la pluie. L'ile joyeuse impressed with the way the melodies arose of the textures, with Dariescu imbuing the piece with feverish energy, reaching a terrific climax.

Cliodna Shanahan
Cliodna Shanahan
Germaine Tailleferre is perhaps best known as being the female member of Les Six. She was around 20 or 21 when she wrote Romance, Pastorale and Impromptu (though Pastorale was revised later on). Lyrical with imaginative harmonies, we could hear the influence of Fauré but also flashes of something like her dazzling contemporary Francis Poulenc. By 1954, Les Six was over and the French music scene was very different. Tailleferre's Deux Pieces consisted of two short pieces, both rather conservative for the 1950s, but full of elegance with a striking harmonic voice.

Lili Boulanger's Prelude in D flat and Trois Morceaux were similarly early; how could they not be as she died in 1918 aged 21. The prelude introduced us to a remarkable harmonic language, almost Debussy's La cathedrale engloutie seen through a dark glass. Trois Morceaux similarly evoked Debussy with added harmonic spice.

Writing in 1909/10, Gabriel Fauré was in his 60s and becoming the great survivor (he died in 1924, aged 79 having completed his string quartet two months earlier). We heard two of his preludes, Prelude in G minor Op. 103 No.3 and Prelude in F op. 103 no. 4. Fauré did not adapt his style to reflect the advent of Modernism of the 20th century, but nor did he remain fixed in aspic, becoming sparer, more refined and harmonically daring. The first prelude was serious, melancholy and rather interior, the second more of a restless character piece. Neither seemed to look back.

Alexandra Dariescu has made something of a speciality of preludes, her disc of preludes by Lili Boulanger, Olivier Messiaen and Gabriel Fauré has just been released on Champs Hill Records, following previous discs of Shostakovich and Szymanowski, and Chopin and Dutilleux.

Her final preludes were from a slightly surprising source, Olivier Messiaen. Written in 1928/29 we heard three No. 1 La colombe, No. 7 Plainte calme and No. 8 Un reflet dans le vent, and Dariescu read us Messiaen's synasthetic colour references for each. The first was highly evocative, and introduced us to a distinctive voice (Messiaen was 20 or 21 when he wrote the preludes). The second was spare, with remarkable harmonies whilst the last was fast with some remarkable variations of textures and a suggestion of underlying anger, reaching a terrific climax.

There is always a sense that Alexandra Dariescu enjoys herself on stage, and here this really communicated itself to the audience, especially as she gave short spoken introductions. Impressively for a programme including a number of rarities, it was played from memory.

At Conway Hall, Cliodna Shanahan and Simon Callaghan were out to have fun too. Their programme, a relative last minute replacement for a cancellation, was a fund raiser for Conway Hall of which Simon Callaghan is Director of Music (tickets are only £12 on the door, and the hall is working hard to keep these prices down). So Shanahan and Callaghan chose pieces they enjoy playing together, Mozart's Sonata in C K521, Ravel's Ma mere l'oye, Schubert's Fantasy in F minor D940, Cécile Chaminade's Pieces Romantiques Op.55 and ending with Schubert's 2 Marches Caracteristiques D 886. Before the concert I gave the pre-concert talk, exploring the development of the piano duet as a medium.

Shanahan and Callaghan started with Mozart, the opening movement taken at quite a tempo with strong articulation giving a sense of delicacy and robustness. The Andante was graceful and elegant, with a charming and characterful Allegretto finale. Ravel's Ma mere l'oye was written for the children of friends and it was hoped they would give the premiere (they didn't, it went to two adult pianists). The music is hardly childish and Ravel uses a wide range of techniques to achieve his ends. Shanahan and Callaghan started out with elegant restraint, bringing clarity and depth to the sound. Tom Thumb was strongly characterised, and throughout we could enjoy the duo's range of colours. Laideronnette was full of oriental hints and magical textures, whilst Beauty and the Beast suitably combined the graceful with the darkly mysterious. We finished with an elegant fairy garden, full of magical sounds.

Schubert's Fantasy in F minor is one of his last works for piano duet, a powerful piece dedicated to his pupil Karoline von Esterhazy (who must have been quite a pianist). The famous melody was dark and melancholy, for all the beautiful phrasing storm clouds seemed rarely far away. Drama alternated with elegance in the Largo, whilst the scherzo was almost perky, though darkness triumphed, and the return of the opening material depth, ending with a wonderful combination of drama and contrapuntal complexity.

Cécile Chaminade was a remarkably successful composer, one who happened to be a woman and whose career combined composition and performing. Her Pièces Romantiques were written in 1890, a suite of six charming character pieces and you felt that Fauré's music was not far away. We opened with a waltz, La Primavera, then the fast and perky La Chaise a Porteurs (Sedan Chair) put a smile on our faces, and Idylle Arabe was a graceful dance. Serenade d'Automne was charming, whilst the Danse Hindoue was only vaguely exotic and Rigaudon was only slightly 18th century but charming all the same.

We finished with Schubert's 2 Marches Caracteristiques D 886, hardly marches at all they were fast and furious pieces, played by Shanahan and Callaghan with vivacity and energy.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • 'Costly Canaries': Mr Handel's Search for Super-Stars at the London Handel Festival (★★★½)  - concert review
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  • Opera speaks to everyone: I chat to soprano Alison Buchanan about Pegasus Opera & their new double bill Shaw goes Wilde  - interview
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  • Barrie Kosky’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at Komische Opera, Berlin
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  • Neapolitan extravagance and a strange wedding present: Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo  - (★★★★concert review
  • Italian charm with a French accent in Vivaldi's La Senna Festeggiante from Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo  (★★★★) - concert review
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  • Making Bach's music visible: the St John Passion staged by Peter Sellars with Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (★★★★) - concert review
  • More than just Costly Canaries: Bridget Cunningham on re-capturing Handel and the importance of research  - interview
  • Home

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