Friday, 29 May 2015

Hindu Hillbillies ? Messiaen Turangalîla-symphonie, Salonen

Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia, London.  A magnificent performance, infused with true insight into the whole  trajectory  of Messiaen's output.  Turangalîla is a strange, exotic beast, quite unlike anything else in the repertoire, confusing and contradicting easy assumptions.  Salonen, however, is one of the best Messiaen exponents of our time, and understands the idiom well. This was a performance of great insight.
When Turangalîla premiered in 1948, one writer  referred to its “fundamental emptiness… appalling melodic tawdriness…..a tune for Dorothy Lamour in a sarong, a dance for Hindu hillbillies”. He had a point. If ever there was music in Technicolor, this is it, complete with cinematic swirls of the ondes martenot.  These days, when we hear the ondes martenot, we don’t associate it with cutting-edge Varèse, but with Béla Lugosi. They don’t even make movies like that anymore.

Perhaps Turangalîla suffers from having been premiered in the wrong time and place. In 1948, Messiaen was largely unknown in the United States, so Koussevitsky's commission was very high profile indeed. The premiere was given by Leonard Bernstein, who probably relished the Hollywoodesque extravagance of the piece.  Although Bernstein didn't work with Nadia Boulanger, her influence over American music was overwhelming.  Boulanger and Messiaen both worked in Paris but occupied completely different spheres. Boulanger believed that music stopped with mid-period Stravinsky. She was a forceful personality,  idolized without question by her largely American (English-speaking) students. She despised |Messiaen, who ignored her, The Great Divide between European and American approaches to music was thus entrenched and continues to this day.

Salonen met Messiaen, learning the music direct from the scores, and from Messiaen's  favourite student, Pierre Boulez. For this London  performance, Pierre-Laurent Aimard played the all-important piano part, he too a great Messiaen interpreter closely and personally associated with the composer.  They were joined on this occasion by Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, who studied ondes martenot with Jeanne Loriod.  Now that the Loriod sisters are gone, and Boulez no longer conducts,  there can be few more authoritative performers than these.  There will be two more Turangalîlas this year, at the BBC Proms and at the Three Choirs Festival, but Salonen, Aimard, Hartmann-Claverie and the Philharmonia will easily be the best.

Instead of milking  Turangalila's lurid psychedelic effects for their own sake, Salonen emphasized its startling energy. From the first bars, great structural forces are at play as in Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (more here). This isn't coincidence, for Turangalila deals with time and the transcendance of time. Hence the wild, volatile piano part.  No room for fuzzy approximations here: Aimard's passages flew with lucid savagery. The "male" voice, and the "statue" theme  express a vivid life force which can neither be contained nor extinguished. Against this the "female" of "flower\ themes of Claverie's ondes martenot, yielding seductively and langorous.   Turangalîla was conceived when Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod fell in love. Their love was forbidden by the restraints of their religion, so found expression in the zany, extra-terrestial nature of this music with its exotic "Peruvian" and gamelan flourishes, all part of the French fascination with non-western traditions, which Messiaen was to explore further, visiting Japan and the Far East. The ostinato operates like a heartbeat: throbbing with intense, erotic exhilaration, finding release in the sighs of the ondes martenot, taken up by lovely, circular shapes in the strings and winds.

This exoticism isn’t there for decoration, but stems from Messiaen's profound belief that all things reflect God’s bounty, even extra-marital love. Turangalîla. is a celebration of life, of love, and of creation in all its glory. Getting an orchestra of this size to move as a single organism takes some doing, but is also part of meaning. Diverse as the world may be, all things exist in purposeful union. Salonen's diamond-hard precision sharpens the impact.  Every note counts, even the tiniest. Messiaen was a devoted bird watcher who could pick out the individual song of the smallest birds amid the cacophony of a dawn chorus.  This insight, too, underpins Salonen's use of contrast. Many instruments play at the same time, but they don’t blend, as such. Instead the shapes come from precise stops and starts, clearly focussed decelerations and accelerations. We stop and listen to the silences, as we should, in nature, and in relationships. .

The ten parts of the symphony unfold in connection with each other. Tender chantes d'amour alternate with passages of extreme fervour. The subject may be love, but the idiom is a kind of religious ecstasy, beyond the comprehension of those who don't understand the zany logic of altered states. Fluttering notes, like the fluttering of wings, or post-coital heartbeats, then, shimmering veils of sound that cast a magical glow, like enchantment.  Turangalîla is a thing of beauty, its gossamer whimsy concealing great strength. Again, the importance of clarity and purity, and the definition which Salonen, Aimard, Claverie and the Philharmonia brought to this performance.  Aimard's playing of the more whimsical passages was glorious, as if he were teasing the orchestra , inspiring brightness of tone in the percussion, followed by great waves of sound.  Some hear in the sassy passages, echoes of Cole Porter (Love for Sale)  but Messiaen's images are far more audacious. The interweaving of themes, the alternating moments of dense sound and quiet  passage suggest something surprisingly organic, as if we were experiencing the creation of the cosmos itself.  But then, Turangalîla is so explosive, and so liberating that it is an act of creation  One can imagine, perhaps,  the stars shining in the universe and the large, angular sections, the shifting of tectonic plates, ideas which Messiaen would develop throughout his work. The final section, Modéré, presque vif, avec une grande joie:is a kind of apotheosis. The orchestra plays in unison, the lovers are united with each other and with God and Nature in glorious sublimation. Listen to the blaze of that  last coda!

Messaien and Loriod didn't have children (apart from favourites like Boulez, Aimard and |George Benjamin)  but their relationship led to the birth of some of the most remarkable music of the 20th century, its quirky, creative freedom  contradicting silly notions that modern music follows rigid rules. True artists don't operate in schools, like fish, or sheep,  but like the birds Messiaen so loved, but thrive as distinctive individuals. 

The programme began with Debussy Syrinx (Samuel Coles, principal flute) and  Debussy La damoiselle élue with Sophie Bevan,  Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano) and the ladies of the Philharmonia Chorus. The text is based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Blessèd Damozel.. The love there is forbidden too, but poisoned. No doubt Debussy, with his fondness for  Maeterlinck would have been aware of Rossetti raiding the grave of his beloved to retrieve his poems, tainted by the bodily fluids of death.  Not something Messiaen would have contemplated.

Listen again on BBC Radio 3

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Garsington Opera 2016 - Haydn choreographed

Many new directions ahead for Garsington Opera at Wormsley! This year's season begins with Mozart Così fan tutte, the start of a new series of Mozart operas  which build on Garsington's formidable reputation as a Rossini house. Another breakthrough this year is Garsington's Midsummer Night's Dream, the first co-operation between Garsington and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Seeing the play, with incidental music by Mendelssohn, in the spectacular surroundings of Wormsley Park should be a great experience. This year's season also includes Strauss Intermezzo and Britten Death in Venice.   Tickets sold out ages ago - phone for returns! 

Garsington Opera at Wormsley is fast becoming the most innovative medium-sized opera company in this country.  Outlines of, Garsington Opera's 2016 have just been announced.  Three new productions: Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, conducted by Douglas Boyd and directed by Michael Boyd, Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri conductor David Parry, director William Tuckett and Mozart's Idomeneo with Tobias Ringborg conducting and Tim Albery directing.

Also in 2016, Haydn's masterpiece The Creation, in a joint production between Garsington Opera and Rambert, the dance company. The Creation will be conducted by Douglas Boyd and brought to life by choreographer Mark Baldwin, who is Artistic Director of Rambert and visual artist Pablo Bronstein.  Originally founded by Marie Rambert, Rambert, is Britain's national dance company. It presents new and historical dance works to audiences in all parts of the country, performed by world-class dancers and accompanied by live music, Read more about Rambert HERE.

Douglas Boyd said: We want to celebrate our wonderful Opera Pavilion and Garsington Opera in every possible way and I am delighted to be collaborating with Rambert. Bringing together different art forms is something that I believe enhances and complements our opera festival as we continue to explore partnerships with some of the most vibrant arts organisations of our time. Mark Baldwin said: Music and cross art-form collaboration have always been an integral part of Rambert's work and a particular passion of mine. I am hugely excited to be collaborating with Garsington Opera and Pablo Bronstein on this very special project which will see Rambert's world-class dancers join the incredible Garsington soloists, orchestra and chorus. I believe this will maximise the creativeness and beauty of Haydn's masterpiece and prove to be a glorious and uplifting experience."

Photo above shows the 1808 performance of The Creation  with Haydn himself  in the foreground. 

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Henry-Louis de La Grange 91st Birthday

Today is the 91st birthday of Professor Henry-Louis de La Grange  His work on Gustav Mahler is a monument, to the composer, to music, and to proper scholarship. Conductors interpret, listeners listen, but scholars provide the materials others can build upon.  That's why I firmly believe that Professor de La Grange has done more than anyone else to increase our knowledge of Mahler, giving us the means to develop our interpretations, and to evaluate the interpretations of others. Professor de La Grange's work has enhanced our understanding of Mahler as a deeply intellectual, thoughtful man, whose symphonies form a trajectory of musical and extra-musical ideas. The greater the insight,  the greater the chances are of true understanding

Professor de La Grange has dedicated his life  to a great cause,  His father was a pioneering aviator, who served the community. His mother was a patron of the arts, encouraging some great names before they became famous. Their son continued that tradition of unselfish dedication to higher things, yet always with the kindness, generosity and humility that marks genuinely remarkable people,  In a world which seems to be descending into selfish barbaric ignorance,  Professor de La Grange, and his values, and the values Mahler espoused, stand as a beacon for civilization.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Turn the Key Softly - love poem for London

Not many films start with credits like: "We acknowledge with gratitude the help of the Home Office, The Prison Commissioners and the Governor of HM Prison, Holloway".  Turn the Key Softly begins with a shot of Holloway Prison,  as it was in 1953. It's oddly nostalgic. Veiled in heavy London fog, the prison looks mysterious, almost romantic.,Within minutes though, we're up against reality. Three women prisoners are being released. The scene's filmed inside. The guards are dehumanized - you can almost smell the repression. In prison, the women are anonymous. They collect their belongings to return outside. "Until you see people in their own clothes, you don't realize what you've been mixing with in this place" Who's that familiar face - Joan Collins  aged 19, dolled up in a deliciously bizarre peplum, which sums up the personality of her part, Stella Jarvis, flibbertigibbet good-time girl.

London itself stars in this film. The camera lingers, lovingly, on scenes shot on location. Monica Marsden ( Yvonne Mitchell) goes home to a flat in a terrace near St Mary's, Bryanston Square - nothing has changed in 60 years !  We also see another part of London which has disappeared, though - rooming houses in run down Victorian mansions, seedily keeping up pretensions. The landlady lets Mrs Quilliam (Kathleen Harrison) have her old room back. It's unchanged. The landlady's even looked after Johnny, the dog. Imagine landlords that laidback now.  Onc scene seems to have been filmed in a real pub, not a set.  Few pubs look like that now.  We see the Underground, pristine and spotless, and Trafalgar Square minus tourists. We see the West End, and something of London's future. Mrs Quilliam's daughter is "aspirational". She's escaped the East End for an identikit house in  some outer suburb and shudders at the thought of "lower class". The cinematography is so poetic that this film is a kind of love story for London.

Turn the Key Softly was written, produced and directed by Maurice Cowan and Jack Lee, at Pinewood Studios, when the British film industry was at its artistic peak. Based on a novel by John Brophy, it's a tightly paced drama, with deftly written dialogue, and strong characterizations, even in the minor parts - all of them London "types", lovingly drawn. Stella brags to her prostitute friends that her boyfriend's "in transport". Since the action all takes place within 24 hours, the narrative moves swiftly. Stella loses the £3 her boyfriend gives her to live on for a week, (!!!!) but gets it back by fleecing the stranger who thought he'd arranged a date with Monica. Unlike Stella and Mrs |Quilliam, who are feckless kleptos, Monica has never been in trouble with the law before. She was arrested because her boyfriend David (Terence Morgan) let her take the rap for one of his burglaries. Clearly, she loves him, but sees through his games. Thinking they're going to the theatre, she wears an evening gown. Now, you don't wear yards of tulle, even at Glyndebourne. David, however, has set up another crime. This time, Monica doesn't help. David is trapped on a roof, fighting off the police.  Wonderful cinematography again, worthy of much better known films noir. The camera shows the West End theatre in awkward angular shots. It's a wet night in theatreland : the camera contrasts textures: stone walls, cramped stairwells, metal fire escapes, the machinery with which the police winch themselves onto the roof. each frame adds to the sense of tension and danger.

The tightness of the script is further enhanced  by the clear-sighted anti-sentimentality of the plot. Monica is a strong person, determined not to be dragged down, like poor, dotty Mrs Quilliam, who gets killed by a car as she squeals in delight and relief, having found her lost dog. Stella's getting married, but how long will it be before she goes back to her old ways  Young as she is, she may squander her future and end up like Mrs Quilliam. 

Mischa Spoliansky wrote the soundtrack and conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, when orchestras did movie work on a regular basis. Spoliansky was a star in German theatre and cabaret, before being forced into exile. In London, he built a successful  new career, writing scores for Norman Wisdom movies, and many others, including Sanders of the River and King Solomon's Mines. In Turn the Key Softly, Spoliansky's wit shines through. Stella sings trashy pop, but Monica's more sophisticated taste is underlined by quotations from Poulenc Les chemins d'amour

Buddha's Birthday

Today marks the birthday of Lord Guatama Buddha, celebrated across the world.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Donizetti Glyndebourne Poliuto - a great new classic

Donizetti Poliuto at Glyndebourne could well become one of of the great Glyndebourne classics.  It makes a powerful case for the opera, and also for Glyndebourne's artistic vision. Poliuto isn't standard repertoire - it's nothing like L'elisir d'amore - but this brilliant production and performances show what a powerful work it is.  Political repression,  religious intolerance and persecution are all too relevant today. Poliuto packs an emotional punch. We should heed its message

Donizetti's source material was a play by Corneille, written two centuries previously. Polyeucte (Poliuto) was a nobleman in an  outpost of the Roman Empire. The opera begins with brooding, murky music with a hushed but fervent chorus. Christians are meeting in secret. Three hundred years after the death of Christ, being a Christian was dangerous. Most early Christians were poor, an underclass inspired by the doctrine of heavenly rewards for earthly suffering. In a militaristic state like Rome, the idea that the meek might inherit the earth would have seemed dangerously subversive, tantamount to overthrowing the basic values of social order. Towering columns of what appear to be rough-hewn stone overwhelm the figures below, at once a depiction of the harsh conditions Christians faced, yet also the strength of their faith.

The opera begins with murky music suggesting shadows, and a hushed but fervent chorus. Into this darkness Poliuto (Michael Fabiano) appears. He's a nobleman, an outsider. Is he a spy? His friend, Nearco (Emanuele D’Aguanno), is a convert. and Poliuto wants to find out why this strange new faith holds such allure.  Poliuto's troubled because he knows that his wife Paolina (Ana María Martínez) is still in love with Severo ( Igor Golovatenko), who she thought had died. Since Severo is now a Proconsul, with authority direct from Rome, this love triangle has toxic political complications. Severo's costume suggests Mussolini, who defined Fascism. His guards resemble Mussolini's secret police. With a wry tough sense of humour, director Mariame Clément  has them smoking cigarettes.

Enrique Mazzola, a bel canto specialist, conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Last November, Mark Elder conducted Les Martyrs,  the French version of Poluito which Donizetti created for Paris when Poliuto was banned in Naples. The LPO aren't a period instrument orchestra like the Age of Enlightenment for Opera Rara, but Mazzola used that to advantage, creating an almost Verdian richness of colour from the relatively small forces of a Donizetti orchestra. Mazzola seems to inspire great enthusiasm from his players. Hopefully, we'll hear much more of him at Glyndebourne (and in London) in the future.

Severo and Paolina snatch a few moments together.  Martínez executed Paolina's arias with such beauty  that her voice seemed to shimmer. Good casting, since divine light seems to permeate this opera, despite the gruesome nature of the narrative. Donizetti gilds the vocal line with almost minimalist grace - delicately plucked strings, a single low flute, and the sound of the harp. For a moment, an image of a flowering tree is projected on the walls behind her  Martínez's voice blossoms with warmth that's all too soon extinguished.  When she and Golovatenko sing together, they're singing love duets tinged with frustration  and regret.  Paolina, though, is a paragon of virtue, a concept both Roman and Christian.

Regimes that feel threatened turn to extremes. In the Temple of Jupiter, the crowds are whipped up to bloodthirsty frenzy. Some of the chorus had been singing Christians earlier, or Roman guards: interesting irony. Matthew Rose 's firmly focused bass created Callistene, the High Priest with great authority. With Severo wavering, and and Poliuto turning Christian, it's up to him to hold up the foundations of the Roman Empire But Poliuto isn't afraid of death. He believes in the resurrection: worldly concerns are no match. The purity of Michael Fabiano's tenor rings so cleanly that Paolina is convinced that  any faith that can conquer death is one worth having, even if it means leaving her father Felice (Timothy Robinson) singing from a wheelchair, to underline his inability to morally stand on his own two feet. When Poliuto and Paolina die, we don't need to see blood and guts. Being True Believers, they're simply transformed in a blaze of light.  The designs (Julia Hansen and Bernd Purkrabek) with video projections,  b fettFilm (Momme Hinrichs and Torge Möller) were extraordinarily beautiful. Gorgeous washes of colour. Sets that move as seamlessly as this, and transform with such subtlety are a thing of wonder. Like Paolina, I thought I could hear the angels sing.

This review appears also in Opera Today

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Donizetti Poliuto today at Glyndebourne

Donizetti Poliuto at Glyndebourne today!  In November, the opera in its French langauge version, Les Martyrs,  was done by Opera Rara (my review here). What a buzz that created!  After that  Les Martyrs, I could hardly wait for Poliuto. This kind of programming,is good because it expands the way we listen and learn. Moreover this year marks the centenary of the Armenian Holocaust. It's as well that we should remember the centuries of conflict from which that arose. My review of the Glyndebourne production is HERE. 

The opera, or operas, are both set in Armenia, when it was an outpost of the Roman Empire. But beware thinking that the opera is somehow "about" Armenia . It's not !  The story could have happened anywhere in the Roman Empire. It still happens today - think ISIS, Falun Gong, etc etc. Unfortunately those who don't actually engage with opera don't care enough about opera to  get past reading the first line of a synopsis.

Donizetti's impetus was a play by Corneille, written two hundred years previously. It deals with the persecution of Christians by the Romans. Most Christian converts were underclass, but Polyeucte (Poliuto) was a pillar of the Roman establishment, with much more to lose by espousing a subversive cause. Although the story is clothed in Christian piety, it represents something far more dangerous.  Unsurprisngly, Donizetti ran into trouble with Poliuto. It was banned by the King of Sicily, who didn't think religious subjects should be done in the theatre at all.  Quite possibly he didn't get the underlying message of social upheaval.  Donizetti then revised it for French audiences who were more liberal. It also gave him an entrée into French grand opera. Of course the Christians win in the end, for a while, but for the time being we get a spectacle of blood and gore as Poliuto gets fed to the lions (as far as that can be depicted in the theatre)

Please read my review of the Glyndebourne Poliuto in Opera Today

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Garsington Opera for free with dates !

Garsington Opera is an experience so unique that it should not be missed. The theatre at Wormsley is an architectural wonder, shimmering glass, air and light (with good acoustics, too, that seems to float in the air.  Not many theatres have an entire valley, complete with lake, as a backdrop !  But because the theatre is a gem, seats sell out fast.  Under Music Director Douglas Boyd, with the support of Mark Getty, Garsington Opera at Wormsley is developing into the most innovative smaller house in the country.  So Garsington Opera's "Opera for All" plans are extremely good news indeed.

Even more exciting, the opera being screened is the highlight of the whole season, Mozart Così fan tutte. Garsington Opera has  a strong Mozart tradition, and is possibly ideal for thge more intimate Mozart operas, so this brand  new production heralds great things. Douglas Boyd conducts and John Fulljames (Associate Director at the Royal Opera House) directs. Celebrity Lesley Garrett sings Despina, supported by Ashley Riches,  Robin Tritschler, Andreea Soare, Kathryn Rudge and Neal Davies.

Dates and venues here :

OXFORD Sunday 2 July 6pm Magdalen College Fields 
LOUTH Sunday 5 July 1.30pm SO Festival, Westgate Fields
GRIMSBY Tuesday 29 Sept 12noon Grimsby Auditorium
WADDESDON Thursday 3 September Waddesdon Manor
RAMSGATE 10 – 15 October tbc Ramsgate Arts

NOT for free but important : A Midsummers Night's Dream (Mendelssohn) Garsington Opera's first ever collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company opens at Wormsley on 19th July but sold out almost instantly. But it's coming to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London from 22nd July for three nights More details here,

MARLOW Sunday 14 June 7.30pm Marlow Festival Enclosure - a recording of Offenbach’s Vert-Vert from Garsington’s 2014 season. Reviewed HERE in Opera Today

So, enjoy Garsington Opera in stately surroundings, or on the beach. Bring a picnic, or purchase on site. Photo : Mike Hoban

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Christoph Prégardien Wigmore Hall

Christoph Prégardien made a welcome return to the Wigmore Hall.  He's long been a favourite among Wigmore Hall audiences,  Thirty years ago I heard him there, singing Hugo Wolf. The audience was in raptures, Hearing him now feels like greeting an old friend. Prégardien is such a master that he delivers even familiar repertoire like six Schubert Goethe songs and Schumann's Dichterliebe with grace and conviction.

This time round, he was accompanied by Daniel Heide, a young pianist new to me.  Hearing Prégardien and Heide together added to the experience. Accompanying Lieder is an art in its own right, it's not like being a star soloist. Interaction is everything.  Heide listens sensitively to the subtle colours in Prégardian's phrasing. He's learning from one of the best. His introduction to Wandrers Nachtlied 2, D 768 (Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh') was mysterious, setting the right tone of reverent ambiguity. This song isn't landscape painting!  A sudden change of pace and mood in Willkommen und Abschied, D 767 to chase the clouds away and prepare us for real highlight of the concert, Schumann's Dichterliebe  op 48.

Dichterliebe gets performed so often that some Lieder specialists won't go unless the performance is something special. It's been a cornerstone of Prégardien's career, so I welcome any opportunity to hear him singing it.  As one would expect, a very solid performance, well-articulated, executed with the thoughtfulness and finesse characteristic of Prégardien's style.  Daniel Heide's playing impressed, too. Rich preludes and postludes, so important to Schumann's approach to song. In this collection of songs, it's not the flashy and showy that really count.

 The two critical songs that test any performers, are Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen and  Ich hab' im Traum geweinet. Both songs are surprisingly "inner", creating a psychological ambiguity that's way ahead of its time. Imagine how Schubert might have developed had he lived to further immerse in Heine!  The strange, nebuolus glow of haze of a summer morning gives rise to the strange haze of the dream the poet experiences through a veil of tears.  Gradually we're prepared for the truly strange and exotically lovely Allnächtlich im Traume. when the poet sleeps, a vision of his love appears, saying words of wisdom. Perhaps he's too terrestrial, because he's forgotten them by morning.  Heide's postlude to Die alten, bösen Lieder captured Heine's sense of cheeky irony.

The encore was Schumann, too, Mit Myrthen und Rosen from Liederkreis op 24, another Prégardian speciality.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Kirill Gerstein Wigmore Hall Transcendental Liszt Bach Bartók

Kirill Gerstein, Wigmore Hall  London
Bartók Two Pieces from Mikrokosmos Book VI,  Bach 15 Sinfonias BWV 787 - 801; Liszt Etudes d'execution transcendante S139 (publ. 1852)
Programming Liszt's complete Transcendental Studies is certainly not for the faint hearted. Few pianists even attempt it. Leaving aside the technical difficulty and the stamina required for an hour of some of the most demanding piano music ever written, what should the remainder of the recital comprise? When Lazar Berman performed all 12 at the Royal Festival Hall in 1976 he gave us Prokofiev's 8th Sonata by way of a warm-up.  Typically thoughtful, Kirill Gerstein, the thinking man's virtuoso, gave  us a first half of Bartók and Bach, a pair of Mikrokosmos from Book VI eliding seamlessly into Bach's 15 'Sinfonias', often referred to as 3 part  inventions.

Both Mikrokosmos and the Sinfonias originally had an overtly educational  purpose, Bartók's Micro Universe of piano music ranging from Beginner's  exercises to concert pieces and Bach's 3 part Inventions having their genesis as as a kind of instructional manual in both keyboard technique and composition, stimulated by the experience of teaching Wilhelm Friedrich, Bach's eldest son. Gerstein's account of Bartók's Two Chromatic Inventions (Nos 145a and  145b) were distinguished by the extreme clarity of the part playing  combined with real physical attack, both entirely appropriate. The second of the pair characteristically for Bartók is a variant of the first in the sense that it is based on the same motif but inverted and transposed.

Without a pause Gerstein dove straight into Bach's 15 Sinfonias. The juxtaposition was enlightening although sadly the inclusion of Bartok's; name on the programme 'may' have accounted for a good many unoccupied seats. If so, it was a pity because seldom can music with an educational  origin have sounded less dry or academic. Gerstein has that rare ability of investing Bach's keyboard music with light and shade, and finely characterising each individual movement, for instance the gently lilting  12/8 of the C minor Sinfonia (No 2), the longer shadows cast by the tortuously chromatic D minor fantasia (No 4) or the boundingly joyous E  major 9/8 in No 6. He even found a vein of sly humour in the penultimate Sinfonia (No 14) which on this occasion had a slightly tongue-in-cheek  quality, almost a kind of quodlibet.

Liszt's 12 Transcendental Studies went through 3 versions, the final version performed here dating from 1852. In some movements such as  Mazeppa, Vision and Wilde Jagd they seem to prefigure the preoccupations of some of the later orchestral music, for example in Mazeppa the  symphonic poem of the same name whilst Vision inhabits a similar world to Nocturnal Procession from Lenau's Faust and Wilde Jagd the galloping motion of Hunnenschlact. Other movements such as Preludio or Feux Follets  are more akin to technical exercises although a technical exercise with a twist in the case of the latter. The movements are arranged in pairs,one in a major key followed by one in the relative minor providing welcome  contrast throughout

There was almost a Schumann-esque quality of whimsy, Gerstein's left hand particularly eloquent here and its sunburst climax carried the sort of emotional weight of that cathartic final climax in the Fantasy Op 17.Ricordanza, wonderfully described by Busoni as a "bundle of faded love letters", was magnificent in the perfectly graduated reserves of tone  which Gerstein was able to unleash - few pianists have this kind of tonal resource - and Harmonies du Soir, written incidentally before Baudelaire's famous poem of almost the same name (Harmonie du Soir), was stroked into  life as it were with a velvet paw. This was undoubtedly great Liszt playing, certainly in the same class as that performance referred to previously which I heard nearly 40 years ago. How lucky to have lived to have heard both. No encore was given and none was needed.

Douglas Cooksey