Frederic Chopin: Poet of the Piano

Anna Sleptsova (piano)/Louise McKay (cello)

WAAPA classical piano students

WAAPA Music Auditorium

reviewed by Neville Cohn


For many, if not most, concertgoers, Chopin is thought of exclusively in relation to  works for piano, whether solo or as concertos. But the great Polish composer also wrote a number of chamber music works such as Variations on a theme of Rossini for flute and piano; he also wrote a Trio for piano, violin and cello as well as a number of songs. These seldom appear on programs – but his Sonata for piano and cello is rather more frequently heard. It was the peak of an all-Chopin program and played with rare distinction by Louise McKay (cello) and Anna Sleptsova at the piano.

It was a splendid offering, the peak of the evening, in fact. Impeccable tonal balance between the two instruments, gratifying unanimity of thought and action insofar as ensemble was concerned – and its romantic essence was evoked to the nth degree.

At the conclusion of the first movement, concert protocol was thrown to the winds as a thronged auditorium burst into a huge outburst of applause.

I particularly liked the intensity of feeling brought to each and every measure of the slow movement, with phrasing of utmost finesse allowing the music’s inherent tenderness to register in the most meaningful way. And the finale was made memorable by beautifully considered rubato that enabled the players to capture –  and reveal – the elusive demon that lurks behind the printed note. Bravo! This was a model of what chamber music ought to be.

In passing: the last three movements of the sonata were played for the very first time by cellist Auguste Franchomme with Chopin himself at the piano at Salle Pleyel, Paris on 16th February 1848. It was Chopin’s last public appearance as pianist. (After the concert, there were many drops of blood on the keyboard, horrific evidence of the TB that ravaged his lungs and claimed his life.).

Prior to the Sonata, we listened to a number of WAAPA students who offered a miscellany of Chopin’s pieces for piano.

One of the most meaningful presentations came early in the evening with Jordan Proctor evoking, to pleasing effect, the gentle, bittersweet essence of Mazurka in A minor from opus 17. Emma Davis, too, played, most expressively, the Nocturne in E minor from opus 72.

Chopin’s four Ballades were less uniformly successful.

In Ballade No 2, Izaac Masters revealed both the passion and poetry of the writing but the coda sounded reckless, leaving a trail of wrong notes in its wake. Ryan Davies played Ballade No 1, demonstrating considerable potential but needing to bring a more disciplined approach to allow the poetic nature of much of the writing to manifest.

In Ballade No 3, Mitchell Price-Norgaard conveyed the powerfully romantic nature of the writing with attractive mood contrasts but the overall impact was weakened due to a surfeit of inaccuracies.  There was good evidence of an eloquent left hand in Xiaosong Liu’s reading of  Ballade No 4 – but the presentation, overall, was marred by many inaccuracies and  – in the fiercely difficult coda – a lack of rhythmical control.

Despite a memory lapse and a surfeit of pedalling, Chern Xi Khor’s account of the Nocturne in E opus 62 no 2 brought an attractively languid quality to the presentation.

In Emma Davis’ finely balanced hands, momentum was generally well maintained in Nocturne in E minor from opus 72.

Rhythm was rather too wayward in Chopin’s splendid Polonaise in C sharp minor from opus 26 which is, of course, a dance and needing a steadier beat. And there was a surfeit of wrong notes in Nocturne opus 48 no 1.




WASO 2018 Composition Project

WASO players cond. James Ledger

Hale School Auditorium

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Cries of anguish, chilling moans, grunts and phantasmagoric violin harmonics made for an unsettling listening experience, definitely not the sort of music to listen to alone on a stormy night.

” Dead hands, dead stringencies” by Luis Tasso Santos is one of four new works given their first public performances by a 14-strong ensemble drawn from the WASO which breathed life into a number of works by young composers.

With artistic director James Ledger presiding over events, we listened to a wailing trombone, rumbling bass drum and a good deal of string tremolo. This might well have been a meaningful soundtrack for a scary movie. On first hearing, though, it seemed rather too long for its material. Some discreet pruning – a condensation – might well enhance its overall impact.

These concerts – given annually – are an important series specifically to provide young composers with a platform for their work.

Corey Murphy’s Sword and Stone takes its inspiration from stories about the legendary .King Arthur. An attractive contribution by Leanne Glover on cor anglais and sonorities of finesse courtesy of Andrew Sinclair on double bass contributed to a score which gave much listening pleasure.

Excellent playing from Julian Leslie (horn), Glover on oboe and Joshua Davis (trombone) gave point and meaning to Callum O’Reilly’s Prickles/Goo. Oscillating between  insouciant frivolity and much whooping and grunting – as well as a rather delightful Left Bank-style waltz –  this could have well been an effective  soundtrack for a cartoon movie.

According to Brock Stannard-Brown, his Lullabies for Regan was inspired by that creepy movie The Exorcist. And with ominous notes from both Cameron Brook on tuba and Alexander Millier on bass clarinet – as well as very quiet music box tinklings – this made for intriguing listening. Laurels to percussionist Robyn Gray who did wonders in the ensemble’s kitchen department here and throughout the evening.

Whether so intended or not, just about everything on offer might well have been suited to complement this or that film.

As in the past, each work was prefaced by the composer in brief conversation with Ledger, although a surfeit of mumbling lessened its impact.

Olman Walley provided a Welcome to Country, his virtuosity on the didgeridoo a magnificent starting point to the proceedings.

Eileen Joyce – The Complete Studio Recordings

DECCA 482 6291  (10 CDs)

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Eileen JoyceI was a junior school boy when Eileen Joyce came to Cape Town and I still recall the thrill of hearing the great Australian pianist playing Beethoven’s Fur Elise as an encore – and her predilection for wearing a different gown for each work on the program.

At the time, it would probably have been fair to say that Joyce and Donald Bradman were the two most famous of living Australians. Times change. While Bradman still holds an honoured place in the affections of Ozzies, Joyce’s star has dulled somewhat.

Recently, I spoke to a number of concertgoers in their 70s and older; they instantly recalled the great pianist. But of eleven teenage piano students I spoke to about Joyce, only three knew who she was. Another wondered if she was in one of Australia’s swimming teams at the Commonwealth Games. Another asked if she was the pianist who was born in a tent!

This collection of ten CDs incorporating just about everything Joyce recorded over the years will go a long way to rescuing her from an increasing and undeserved obscurity.

Joyce had a penchant for the music of Grieg with which she was strongly associated A good deal of her celebrity rests on her many accounts of his piano concerto: this one is splendid – as are her performances of many of the celebrated Norwegian’s  miniatures. In Joyce’s hands, they come across as a catalogue of delights, a series of tiny sonic gems which variously gleam, glitter or twinkle. They were recorded for the Parlophone label in 1939.

During 1938 – also for Parlophone – Joyce recorded a number of Rachmaninov’s preludes. They come across like a chaplet of flawless gems.

I listened with particular interest to her account of Tchaikowsky’s Piano Concerto No 2.  It’s a frankly terrible performance dating from 1946 with the London Philharmonic conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg. It was never released during Joyce’s lifetime, a completely understandable decision. Its opening is as stodgy as a cake fallen flat – and it was with a sense of relief that I listened to its closing moments. It is 33 wasted minutes.

(Intriguingly, there’s another early recording of the work by yet another Australian pianist – Noel Mewton Wood, sadly now almost forgotten.  His virtuosity is thrilling. It does not so much attract the attention as seize it in a vice-like grip. Mewton Wood died tragically young, committing suicide in the wake of the death of a lover.)

Incidentally, there’s another Joyce recording now released for the very first time: Chopin’s Waltz in E minor Op. Posth, dating from 1947.

In choosing the repertoire which made her famous, Joyce was a realist. She played only that over which she had complete physical and emotional control (except, of course, the Tchaikowsky concerto).  Not for her, say, the Everests of Beethoven’s late sonatas or the intricacies of the preludes and fugues of Shostakovich.

In public and in the recording studio, she played what she knew she could do as well – and often better – than her fellow musicians: miniatures by Grieg, early Beethoven, numbers of contemporary concertos, usually by British composers. Listen to Joyce playing John Ireland’s Piano Concerto in E flat: it’s a model of its kind. She sails through it’s often excruciatingly taxing measures as if to the manner born. And her account of Shostakovich’s Concerto for piano, trumpet and orchestra, with Leslie Howard presiding over the Halle Orchestra, comes up trumps, too.

There’s a very rare recording of Turina’s Rapsodia Sinfonica with orchestra conducted by Clarence Raybould – and a tidal wave of piano miniatures many of long vanished from the repertoire notwithstanding their charm: Henselt’s Were I a Bird, Farjoen’s Tarantella, Bergman’s Polka Caprice and Schlozer’s Etude in A flat – and more.

Some commentators have been snide about Joyce’s work in the baroque revival which opened up a new world for many whether as performers or listeners. Since

then, much scholarly research has delivered ever more meaningful and stylistically accurate  recordings of baroque-era keyboard music demonstrating an understanding simply not available when Joyce made these recordings. But without those early efforts, the baroque renaissance may well have been delayed for years, decades even.

There is, incidentally, a series of remarkable water colours of Joyce, some alone at the keyboard or with co-harpsichord players George Malcolm, Thurston Dart and Denis Vaughan  in London’s Royal Festival Hall. These now grace the walls of the Eileen Joyce Studio at the University of Western Australia.

Ample liner notes include a first rate commentary on Joyce’s early years by David Tunley – and fascinating material by Cyrus Meher-Homji on the technical side of producing Joyce’s many recordings.

Richard Jackson (vocals), Adam Hall (trumpet)

The Velvet Playboys/ The Soul Playboys

Astor Theatre

reviewed by Neville Cohn


CouchWhen, at a concert, a significant number of the audience spontaneously get up and dance, it’s fair to say the musicians have got it right – and at the Astor Theatre on Friday, that’s an understatement.  Adam Hall and The Soul Playboys performed as if their lives depended on it – and the same could certainly be said of vocalist Richard Jackson whose significant physical presence is more than matched by his vocal skills. Here was soul singing from a son of Cincinnati, well able, surely, to melt the heart of even the chilliest listener. Tireless, laidback – frankly magical –  Jackson sounded in his element as he reached for, and touched, the stars.

There wasn’t a dull moment here with Hall that ace and tireless trumpeter, bobbing  and weaving to rhythms that were clearly an invitation to everyone else in the theatre to rise from their seats and surrender to the Muse. Initially, the dancers were mostly women – but the gents, too, got into the act.

Here was an environment of almost palpable and abundant good humour, lofty musical standards – and unambiguous audience approval. Onstage and off, with much wizardry on keyboards, and an abundance of lavishly stylish work on trombones – the latter including Marques Young, principal trombone with the Malaysia Philharmonic Orchestra (who trained at New York’s Juilliard School of Music) – everyone seemed to be having the time of their lives – and that is a rare state of affairs.

If you weren’t at this event, you can still experience a good deal of its magic via “Satisfied”, a newly released compact disc that brims with good things. If you were present at this event, though, you won’t need me to tell you about it – it makes you feel close to New Orleans. For those who are aficionados of the Blues circa the 1940s, this would have been like coming home.