ENDNOTES, 9th July 2017

Song of the Lark, by Jules Breton

ENDNOTES, 8th July 2017

In this edition: Beethoven and Liszt in Kent; Busoni from Chandos;  Sterndale Bennett and Schumann on the Artalinna label, reviewed by Stuart Millson

The Pilsdon Barn next to St. Mary’s Abbey in the mid-Kent community of The Mallings is not well known as a performance venue. But increasingly, this timbered hall is attracting a growing number of professional chamber musicians, keen to expand their concert profile in the provinces. Run by local violinist and teacher, Stephen Hatfield, the East Malling Research Station Music Club can always be counted upon to present the most promising recitalists, and last month Jina Shim (top prizewinner in the Christopher Duke Piano Competition/2011 Chandos Young Musician of the Year) and Xiaoyun Lim (Melbourne Conservatorium/Royal College of Music) visited – to great acclaim – in a joint recital of Beethoven, Liszt, Haydn, Debussy, Chopin and Rachmaninov.

Beginning with Beethoven’s Pastoral Sonata in four movements, Jina Shim exhibited a style of playing which one would normally only hear on a recording of Alfred Brendel – so clear-headed, cool and soft-of-touch that it was possible to imagine that we were in the company of one of the world’s most famous pianists. Jina Shim will undoubtedly attain such a status. The Pastoral Sonata seemed entirely right for the Pilsdon venue: a gentle masterpiece that worked well in the generous acoustic of the barn – the fragrance of timber and old materials almost adding to the old-world classicism and charm of the music. The work offered a Haydn-like surprise of loud chords, and passages in which the soloist edged along gingerly and carefully, with Beethoven’s gorgeous melodies, sighs and sonorities finely pinpointed by the soloist.

Jina Shim then tackled Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B minor, although it is somehow difficult to think of this work as a conventional ballad – especially with its Gothic drama and lengthy thundering up and down the scales, the piano almost like a wild, revving engine. Liszt presented no hurdles for Jina – the audience’s immediate and strong applause following the music showing just how vigorous an impression this composer makes on all listeners.

In the second half, Xiaoyun Lim offered equally masterful interpretations of Haydn (his F minor Variations); Two Preludes – Nos. 7 and 8 by Debussy; the Scherzo No. 3 by Chopin (unlike the Liszt, a true ballade) and, finally, the Etude Op. 39, No. 9 by Rachmaninov. After the solid 19th-century-ism of the first half, it was refreshing to enter the world of Debussy’s impressionism and Rachmaninov’s Slavic introspection – although the programme might have gained from more Debussy or Ravel on this exquisite summer evening. Xiaoyun Lim will also be a name to reckon with in the future.

Eclectic music has been very much in evidence, once again, from Chandos Records, with a new double-CD set of the music of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) given by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neeme Jarvi. Busoni was born in Italy, but settled in Berlin – his music representing that end-of-an-era romanticism, tinged with the early stirrings of modernism, which we find in Mahler and Strauss. The pianist Nelson Goerner appears with the orchestra in a striking version of the little-known Indianische Fantasie (from 1913-14) – evidence of Busoni’s interest in non-European styles of music. The Orchestral Suite No. 2 (1895 – but revised in the early years of the 20th century) has much to admire: restless energy, commanding brass calls and dramatic timpani. The suite is actually known as the Geharnischte – the “armour-plated” – the movements dedicated to the so-called Leskovites, an artistic group in Helsinki consisting of Sibelius, Armas and Eoro Jarnefelt and Adolf Paul. (The Leskovite title comes, apparently, from the name of Busoni’s pet dog!)

Busoni defies easy description: like Delius, he seems to belong to his own school of music, but this is precisely this quality that makes this Chandos collection such an eye- and ear-opener. As was the case with Liszt, the story of Doktor Faust greatly inspired Busoni (the Sarabande and Cortege on the first CD are two studies for his opera on that subject) and hopefully this sumptuous recording will prompt a Busoni operatic and orchestral revival.

Finally – and from another emerging young pianist, Hiroaki Takenouchi – comes a recent CD of music by the 19th-century English composer, William Sterndale Bennett – a figure undergoing a modest (and much overdue) revival and reappraisal. Sterndale Bennett is often seen as the English Schumann or Mendelssohn. In fact, he visited Leipzig in 1836 (at the age of 20) meeting Mendelssohn and working on an F minor Piano Sonata, which he gave as a wedding present to the illustrious composer. He later met Schumann, and was greatly influenced by the lyrical, sometimes stormy romanticism of that musical era.

In Hiroaki Takenouchi’s hands, we see Sterndale Bennett – not as an imitator of the Germanic music of the time, but as a fully-fledged virtuoso and musical inheritor in his own right; changing our preconceptions of early to mid-19th-century England as the “land without music”. The recording on the Artalinna label couples the composer’s impressive four-movement sonata with Schumann’s Theme and Twelve Etudes in the Form of Variations, “Symphonic Etudes” – again, brilliantly played by Takenouchi in the pleasing acoustic of the Church of St. John the Evangelist, Oxford.

STUART MILLSON is Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

Busoni, orchestral works, BBC PO/Jarvi, Chandos 241-57
Sterndale Bennett/Schumann, Hiroaki Takenouchi, ATL A018

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