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Martyna Jatkauskaita at Wolverton Manor, Isle of Wight 2015-04-25

25 Apr

martynaWolverton Hall is properly in the countryside but near enough to civilisation to make it easily accessible. The owners have made it a specialist concert venue accommodating around 60 souls in the informal setting of a cosy but splendid Jacobean-cum-Queen-Anne drawing room. Click here for details of upcoming concerts:

Tonight’s performer was the remarkable young Lithuanian pianist Martyna Jatkauskaite Introduced with evident fondness by our hosts, Ms Jatkauskaite treated us to a tour de force of pianistic prowess.

Artists of this calibre can be fragile souls, wont to fiddle with piano stools, sit for several seconds calming themselves, looking heavenward for inspiration and the like. Jatkauskaite is the polar opposite: an obvious devotee of the ‘let’s just get on with it’ school of performing, she launched without a second’s delay into the arresting opening chords of Prokofiev’s Sarcasms, Op 17. This wittily named suite contains some highly inventive themes and is not easy listening. Nevertheless it was tonight, in the hands of our artist, engaging, interesting music.

To describe Ms Jatkauskaite as a force of nature is to fail to do justice to her seriousness of purpose, almost intimidating presence and intensity as a performer. The glamorous persona depicted on her promotional materials is utterly not the person you encounter in the flesh. To me she seemed quite fearsome, like a Viking warrior or some kind of Marvel superhero, here to deploy her skill like a weapon to conquer rather than something to show off or struggle with. If victory was her intention, she succeeded, with a no-holds-barred exposition of full-on, take-it-or-leave-it, naked pianism.

Her second offering, Schubert’s Impromptus Op. 142, Nos.1,2,3 & 4, was delivered with all the raw commitment these unforgettable gems deserve. The term ‘Romantic’, as is often applied to Schubert, Chopin and their contemporaries, sometimes implies a kind of winsome otherworldliness full of delicate emotion. Nothing could be further from the truth as far as these composers are concerned. In the case of Schubert, his entrancing melodies are underpinned by visceral power-chords and complex chromatic variety. With Chopin, the breathtaking range of expression, musical refinement and depth in his works always appeals on many levels. These are natural materials for Jatkauskaite to mould in the furnace of her artistry. Her intensity of focus is, to use the word in its correct sense, awesome to behold. Coupled with total technical mastery, this means that the richness of the music can come out in full.

WP_20150425_20_23_40_ProThe interval, during which we partook of refreshments in the delightful kitchen area, gave me a chance to snap the venerable Bechstein that submitted to the evening’s ravishing by our pianist.

Part two of the concert consisted of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, Op. 35. Again Ms Jatkauskaite launched with fiery vigour straight into the turbulent first movement. She proved here, as she had earlier with the Schubert, that she possesses the refined control necessary to render meaningfully the many-faceted emotional complexity of such a piece. The lovable melodies in both the first and second movements were tenderly given. Judicious pauses, rubato and full-spectrum dynamic control combined to give a satisfying delivery. Her Funeral March merged reflective sensitivity with properly meaty, crashing chords. Chopin’s enigmatic finale I must confess defeats my musical senses every time. She certainly seemed to know what she was saying with it however.

This might indeed sum up her performance and from what it showed, her personality as a performer: she knows exactly what she is going to say, she knows exactly how to say it and she means to say it powerfully and with total commitment. Watching her after the applause, listening to our host offering his thanks, the post-performance fire in her eyes was quite remarkable.

If you hear of her playing anywhere, my recommendation would be: do not hesitate to go.



Sally Halsey at St Catherine’s Church, Ventnor 2014-01-05

6 Jan

Sally Halsey at St Catherine’s Church, Ventnor 2014-01-05.

Valentina Seferinova at the Rotunda, Portsmouth Grammar School 2013-11-23

24 Nov


This concert review begins on a non-musical note, for which please bear with me. It seemed a good way to start and a relevant point to make on a matter of current concern.

A national panic fills the pages of our newspapers at present about immigration to the UK from the newest members of the EU. Drowning out the voices of a justified and sober concern, lurid and irresponsible media stories are offered up for our consumption; politicians of the ill-tempered variety pop up on the news and rant; more responsible (but equally ambitious) politicians find themselves drawn in. With all the anxiety, justified or not, negative and uncomfortable fears obscure an under-reported positive outcome that we may equally expect from the closer relationship of our peoples, namely the priceless influx of superbly trained and highly accomplished classical musicians from Eastern Europe and the corpus of under-performed music to which we have been exposed by them. No-one who has experienced the standard of Eastern European musicianship, music education and performance skill that has graced UK and other Western local concert platforms in recent years can be in any doubt that as to the tremendous cultural benefit derived from East-West migration.

Already, the entrepreneurial spirit of the first waves of these artists has penetrated deeply into regional life here in the UK and this is well exemplified by Valentina Seferinova, the Portsmouth-based music lecturer, concert pianist and piano teacher. Music-lovers there and further afield already recognise her as something of a local treasure. Seferinova is seemingly on a mission to bring the music of her native Bulgarian and other Eastern European  composers to the attention and appreciation of local audiences. On the evidence of last night’s concert at the Rotunda, she is succeeding.

The Rotunda audience also demonstrated Seferinova’s appeal across age-groups. Glancing around the room during the performance I saw rapt attention and genuine emotional involvement writ upon the faces of both young and old listeners. A scholar as well as performer, her chosen pieces are always illuminated with helpful introductory background. As to her performance art, it combines the ability to impress across the full dynamic range, with a mature skill in communicating with an audience and creating atmosphere; an ethereal delicacy of touch employed to great effect in refining and enhancing the emotional impact of a piece; near-flawless technical skill and fearlessness in tackling and communicating the often wild, complex and sometimes dissonant passions of the composers she champions. It takes courage to sell difficult and unfamiliar music to casual audiences and that is a particular virtue she seems to possess.

Ms Seferinova strode to the Steinway in a brilliant, sequinned outfit befitting for the performance dazzle to come. Last night’s selection followed to some extent a seasonal autumnal theme and opened with a trio of short pieces, Trois Morceaux, Op. 2 by the underrated Joachim Raff, whose music possesses a marked power to engage and move the listener emotionally with its strong, lyrical melodies.

Second on the agenda was my highlight of the evening, Józef Wieniawski’s Fantaisie et Fugue, Op. 25. The fugue has a real driving force, brought out powerfully by our pianist. It possesses the integrity and fullness of a Bach fugue and was a real delight to hear as its complex patterns were woven so convincingly, an act hard to pull off with any fugue.

The wild and sometimes angry passions of Pancho Vladigerov, arguably the foremost ever Bulgarian composer, captivated us going into the interval. Vladigerov’s music is also greatly under-rated and under-performed; Seferinova awoke within our spirits something of its visceral nature. The piece performed was Elégie d’automne, op. 15

Following the interval, now resplendent in flowing green, Ms Seferinova offered Zygmund Noskowski’s very attractive En Automne, Op 29 No.1 and Valse Dolente, Op. 35, No. 3. She has recorded Noskowski recently in Poland: CDs are available here: G.

The evening concluded with Sergei Rachmaninov’s 5-part Morceaux de Fantasie op. 3. Almost everyone will know something of the second of these Morceaux, the Prelude in C sharp minor, with its crashing chords, turbulent emotional power and tenderness. Seferinova easily traversed the iconic opening from fortissimo low C to the three pianissimo  chords ending on D that seem to say and ask so much. Now in love with the Russian master, we were taken by the performer through beautiful avenues of musical exploration, one of the loveliest being the Polichinelle, its capricious passages punctuated by an exquisite, wave-like melody of rarest aesthetic and emotional depth. Seferinova is meticulous in her faithfulness to the scores she presents, allowing the listener to move close to the composer’s intention.

Sustained, enthusiastic applause and an encore later, we walked to the Isle of Wight ferry fortified against the cold weather and late-night revellers; our musical high more than a match for their alcohol-induced version.

Havant Symphony Orchestra and Valentina Seferinova at Hayling Island Community Centre, 21 Sep 2013

23 Sep


Hayling Island is, one might say, the poor cousin of Portsea Island, the latter being home to the major city of Portsmouth and its seaside sister Southsea. Hayling by comparison has a tiny population though it is just as large geographically and boasts, in Langston harbour, an equally impressive haven from the Solent.

The love of good music is, by last Saturday night’s evidence, also just as great in Hayling. The unassuming, indeed drab and uninspiring shell of the Hayling Community Centre belied the fine musical experience going on inside as the Havant Symphony Orchestra, under the assured conducting of Colin Jagger and accompanied by internationally acclaimed pianist Valentina Seferinova, delivered a stirring and highly accomplished evening of popular classics.

There is very little tiering of seats at the Centre, so if like my wife and I, you don’t arrive early, your view of the stage area  may be very limited especially when the hall is packed to the gunwhales as on this occasion.

We settled in for the first offering, Offenbach’s Orpheus In The Underworld overture. It was clear early on that this is a quality orchestra with high standards. Colin Jagger has studied conducting at an advanced level here and in the USA and his skill was evident. Paradoxically, it can be noticeable sometimes in a professional orchestra that some players are jaded or uninspired, whereas amateurs tend to be driven by sheer love and enthusiasm and in the right hands can produce a better result. I couldn’t resist foot-tapping to the can-can finale and was further entertained by observing the faces of my companion audience members as they struggled with the urge to loosen up.

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And so to the main event as far as I was concerned: Grieg’s Piano Concerto with soloist Valentina Seferinova. Valentina is my piano teacher, I am proud to confess, so it’s hard to review her performance in an unbiased way. But I am sure the majority of the audience would agree that her delivery of this beloved work lived up to the drama and beauty that Grieg’s masterpiece is so well known for. Outstanding in his ability to evoke both the powerful and the delicate susceptibilities of the human spirit, Grieg created one of the most loved works of its kind. During the virtuoso solo passages Ms Seferinova, devoted entirely to her task, enraptured the audience. As I looked around, everywhere that wonderful power of music to subdue the animal instincts and stir the spiritual was in evidence. The piano itself, a not-so-huge grand, was not quite capable in the hall of fully conveying Ms Seferinova’s passion and seasoned virtuosity but both came across in plenty. I was disappointed at first not to get a better view of the pianist but was treated to a good view of her hands reflected in the glossy varnish of the piano lid.

Colin Jagger expertly wove the orchestra and piano parts together, each enhancing, as they should, the drama of the other. The genuine spontaneity and enthusiasm of the closing applause testified to the excellence of the performance.

Sadly, due to the exigencies of ferry travel late in the evening my wife and I had to leave before the performance of Beethoven’s 5th that completed the programme.

Great music is alive and well on the South Coast.

Jack Gibbons Gershwin in Oxford

23 Aug

Wednesday 21st August 2013 at 8pm and the audience at the Holywell Music Rooms in Oxford are transported back in time and space to a party in New York, circa 1930. Courtesy of the affable, erudite and astonishingly talented Jack Gibbons, one of the world’s leading champions of Gershwin’s virtuoso piano arrangements. A key figure in one of the great cultural stirrings of modern times, Gershwin was possessed of a pianistic genius that, during his short life, was devoted to creating a uniquely American style of music, merging Afro-American rhythms, styles and motifs with the classical genre.
Jack Gibbons strode onto stage in the rather intimate surroundings of this famous venue, sat down immediately after the applause and launched straight into his first frenetic number, falling prey to none of the OCD rituals of seat twiddling, looking up and down for inspiration or other nervous habits of many concert pianists.

Between each warmly received piece he drew on his deep treasury of stories gathered during long research, to set a stage on which Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and others of that inspired ‘charmed circle’ played out their ground-breaking roles.Gibbons took us with him to Tin Pan Alley, concert venues in New York and elsewhere, and intimate parties where Gershwin would play for hours, improvising on his great compositions in ways that are mostly lost to history but in certain instances, and through painstaking research and reconstruction, have been realised and recorded by Gibbons for posterity.

During the evening he covered many of the Gershwin classics: I Got Rhythm, The Man I Love and of course Rhapsody in Blue. An American in Paris, Summertime (delivered most ravishingly) and Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off also featured.

Throughout, we couldn’t help but thrill to the fantastic, almost Beethoven-like energy and Mozart-like variety of ornamentations that Gershwin used. No mean feat either, to present this music flawlessly (though very occasionally off beat) by the performer who maintains a prodigious schedule of summer concerts featuring Chopin and Alkan as well as Gershwin.

I learned that Gershwin, his life cut one year shorter than that of Chopin but troubled by less suffering, was truly a composer of genius. Jack dwelled at one point on the fact that composers often change their minds about tempo, illustrating with a phrase from Chopin’s Etude Op 10 no. 3, nowadays played Andante or Lento (and to great effect) but originally inscribed Vivace by the composer. Certainly Gershwin played at high speed a lot of the time, perhaps following the spirit of the American age.

The final standing ovation for Gibbons was unanimous, genuine and warmly deserved. Highly recommended.

Maureen Galea at Portsmouth Music Club

14 Apr


On Saturday 13th April 2013 at 7.30 pm an audience gathered at Portsmouth Grammar School music department, in the ‘Rotunda’ room, for a solo recital by the Maltese pianist Maureen Galea. A distinguished performer and academic specialising in the works of Czech composers, she provided a superb evening’s entertainment.

The fewness of audience numbers was no deterrent to Galea who, wearing a flowing green dress and a strikingly broad smile, dazzled us with a programme of virtuoso works by Czech and other composers. She prefaced each piece with an intelligent and well-judged introduction, drawing on her research as well as a deep affinity with the music. We went away feeling we had learned something as well as having had a spiritually elevating and artistically very pleasurable experience.

The opening Beethoven Grand Sonata Pathetique Op. 13 was executed with drama underpinned by precision. Ms Galea has very strong and secure technique and plays with an almost percussive rhythmic style that gives real purpose and direction to her performance. From the first chords of the opening Grave her desire to communicate with the listeners was evident. The two Allegro movements were fiercely uncompromising and demonstrated her formidable Italian-style passion. The famous Andante Cantabile had tenderness and was not overly sentimental.

Next came two Bagatelles from Op 107 No 3 by the Austrian (but would today be Slovenian) composer Hummel. ‘La Contemplazione: Una Fantasia Piccola’  and ‘Rondo All’ Ungherese’ revealed, it seemed to me, strong influences of Mozart (a teacher of Hummel) and shades of Beethoven too. These technically demanding works were easily mastered by our pianist whose command and confidence was so great that she was able to use one pause of no more than a second to adjust the ring on a finger and another to adjust her clothing. Astonishing, though her confidence was, amusingly, her undoing at one moment, I think it was during her next pieces, Dumka and Furiant by Dvorak which she played from photocopies. A page turn did not go exactly as planned (characteristically she did her own, gratuitously adding another challenge to an already demanding workload); necessitating a few unscripted filler notes. None of this detracted from her very impressive overall delivery of Dvorak’s rich, inventive works.

The interval provided an opportunity for socialising among the Portsmouth Music Club members, a committed band of music lovers fronted by the charming Diana Swann. As well as supporting local music in schools an elsewhere, the Club puts on a series of top quality classical events, one of which upcoming in November will be a concert by local piano virtuoso Valentina Seferinova (details to follow on the Club web site), who like Galea has done much to champion music that does not enjoy its deserved prominence in the established repertoire. This is one way, hopefully, in which a younger audience can be attracted to these kind of events: I am 60 this week, the concert being something of a birthday treat, and was one of the youngest present.

The break was followed by three pieces by Smetana: Georgina’s Polka, Pensee Fugitive and Louisa’s Polka. Sandwiched between the two very lively polkas, the Pensee Fugitive provided one of the evening’s moments of calm and romance. Galea’s introductory remarks about the intriguing origin of the works really enhanced my appreciation of them.

Beethoven’s Fantasie Op. 77 reminded us why he remains a towering figure in the piano repertoire. Fire, subtlety, variety (the piece is variation-based), the unparalleled power to move and excite the more turbulent emotions. Such music is ideally suited to the abilities of Galea who had no difficulty in pulling it off with style and flourish. If pianistic performance styles could be compared to motor cars, she is definitely a Ferrari, with raw power allied to panache and beautiful styling.

Her penultimate offering was Love Song by J. Suk, Op. 7 No. 1. This moving work, prefaced by remarks that made clear Galea’s personal fondness for and affinity with it, was crafted lovingly by her on the immaculate Steinway.

The final piece was by Vorisek, Fantasie Op. 12, that happily provided a great way for the pianist to finish with sparkle and flourish.

On the basis of last night’s performance, Galea comes highly recommended.

Alexandra Dariescu at Freshwater

18 Nov

On Saturday 9th November 2012, Romanian concert pianist Alexandra Dariescu returned to Freshwater, Isle of Wight to perform at the Memorial Hall. Her programme included Beethoven, Scarlatti, Schumann and Chopin, so covering three different musical periods and styles. The pieces chosen were all demanding, underlining Ms Dariescu’s status as a highly accomplished pianist.

The concert was arranged by the West Wight Arts Association and the audience was comprised mainly of persons on average about a third as old as some of the pieces performed. In contrast, the young pianist, resplendent in a scintillating dress and sporting a genuine smile, exuded youth and energy, both applied to good effect in the opening Beethoven Sonata No 6 in F major Op 10 No. 2, an early piece and the shortest of the early sonatas. The work displayed Beethoven’s sense of fun as well as his virtuosity as a performer. Ms Dariescu responded accordingly, impressing particularly during the complex passages in the 3rd (Presto) movement.

This was followed by a most refined and emotionally rich rendering of a Scarlatti Sonata in F minor; one apparently of 20 in that key out of a mind-boggling corpus of 555 keyboard sonatas. For me this was the highlight of the concert, revealing a touching, subtle beauty in what is a seemingly simple musical form. The pianist took our aesthetic sensibilities on a meaningful, personal journey. I simply did not realise that Scarlatti could sound like this: not at all repetitive but with each recurring phrase treated differently, the pianist creating a most satisfying experience. It called to mind Benjamin Grosvenor’s treatment of a Bach Partita at a recent concert; perhaps experimental but inventive and capable of holding the interest of younger audiences (of which more later in this blog).

The last piece before the interval was Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op 12. A contemporary and friend of Chopin and a promoter of Beethoven, one can perhaps discern influences of both in this work. The Fantasiestücke were for me difficult to follow, albeit full of beautiful sounds. Considering the complexity of the composer’s mind and the tragedies in his personal life it is perhaps not surprising that at times the force of the musical ideas tumbling over one another seem to overwhelm the basic structure. That said, Ms Dariescu’s talent and accomplishment were more than up to the task of performing this work with panache and confidence.

After the interval, during which, inexplicably, someone thought it appropriate to hold a raffle, the prizes arrayed beneath the glorious Steinway like cheap gifts around a Christmas tree, Ms Dariescu performed the entire Chopin 24 Preludes Op 28. She did this with complete success and, despite her relative youth, a mature understanding of the wonderfully broad range of musical themes that the composer explored during his ill-fated sojourn in Mallorca in the winter of 1838-39. As with Schumann, the ideas are diverse and complex but in the hands of the Polish master they are never out of control, always underpinned by a solid structure and possessed of an outstanding integrity, simplicity and power to affect the hearts of people of every kind. Performing all 24 Preludes must be a formidable task for any pianist but Ms Dariescu never flagged and completed the final Allegro Appassionato with a powerful, triumphant flourish down to the low, low D. Cannon in flowers indeed.

In summary, Alexandra Dariescu is a formidable talent and a very watchable performer. Her grace and presence at the piano are pleasing; her skill and mastery undoubted, her resourcefulness in the conveying of refined musical effects impressive. At the end of her performance the applause was warm and animated, to the extent possible among the ageing contingent present. Had knee and hip joints permitted, a standing ovation would have occurred but a vigorous stamping of feet sufficed.

Humour aside, I did wonder how the West Wight Arts Association is going to reach out to a younger audience for this kind of priceless musical experience. The ambience of the concert and venue had a bit too much of the Derby and Joan club and not enough excitement and sense of occasion. This was not helped by a 5-minute selling job at the beginning about upcoming events; a surprise call for a round of applause for the secretary or some such official of whom I and no doubt many others knew nothing; the interval raffle and the disorganised queues for refreshments and CD sales. The venue itself is ideally equipped for intimate concerts of this kind but a bit more imagination in pleasing the paying customers and setting an appropriate tone might widen the appeal.


West Wight Arts Association: