Cheltenham, United Kingdom: Sunday 1 June 2008
Nestling beneath the escarpment of the Cotswold Hills, Cheltenham is an elegant and prosperous spa town in the west of England with a long tradition of supporting the arts, particularly through its world famous and long established music festival. On a more modest scale, but just as laudable, is Music at Park House. George and Yoko Mathers have been hosting free chamber concerts in their lovely Regency villa in the town for the last twenty years. This generosity springs from an abiding love of music and has been rewarded by a loyal following of appreciative Cheltonians who come along every three weeks to hear young and talented musicians play a mixture of the familiar and the new in an intimate, informal and very welcoming atmosphere.
Having played Raff's Piano Concerto in Ho Chi Minh City last year, pianist Tra Nguyen has already established her credentials as a Raff specialist. She was making her third visit to Cheltenham in as many years and her recital followed the tradition of spicing programmes with "unknown" music by introducing to this receptive audience works by Raff and Leo Ornstein, together with the more familiar fare of a Beethoven Piano Sonata. This was the third of his op.10 set, dating from 1798. The large scale Sonata in D provided her with the opportunity to show off to telling effect the various aspects of her impressive pianism: heroic dramatics in the opening Presto, delicately phrased sensitivity in the tragic Largo e mesto, affecting lyricism in the short Menuetto Allegro and playfulness eventually transformed into grand gesture in the final Rondo Allegro. It was a commanding performance.
The next two pieces required some introduction by Tra. Leo Ornstein (1893-2002) was a Russian-American who had made a big impression in his adopted country in the early 20th century, only to lapse into obscurity as the years passed. His idiom, she explained, was originally quite challenging and mostly atonal but as he got older he had reverted to a more accessible and almost romantic style. The two delightful waltzes she played certainly fell into this category. Attractive though they were, the constantly changing textures and sideslipping harmonies of these feverishly delicate gems also made them an arresting listen and bore out her insistence that Ornstein was a composer who was very difficult to pigeonhole. Tra's planned recording of all seventeen of his waltzes will certainly be one to look out for.
After an interval spent wandering the Mathers' well tended garden, tea cup in hand, it was time for Raff. Once again Tra's introduction underlined her passionate belief in the worth of Raff, of whose music most of the audience were clearly in ignorance. She began with Abends, the last of the twelve pieces which make up Frühlingsboten (Harbingers of Spring) op.55. Together with a couple of other numbers from the same set, this evocation of a balmy Spring evening was the first of Raff's great hits with Victorian pianists and it's easy to see how its gentle lyricism and warm melody made such an strong impression at the time. Tra played it straight, emphasising the ebb and flow of its contours and wringing out every last drop of emotion from this pretty work, without allowing it to descend into mere sentimentality.
From Raff's first great success to his last popular piano work: Im Schilff (In the reeds) comes from op.196, a set of four unconnected pieces which dates from 1875, twenty years after Abends was penned. The contrast was telling as this is as impressionist a piece of tone painting as Debussy ever conjured up. Its constant high figurations create an unmistakable sound picture of a lakeside breeze perpetually rustling the tall reeds, against which Raff spins out an elusive melody which gradually swells to a climax near the end of the work before quickly ebbing away, leaving behind just the dancing stems. Tra's masterly control of the dynamics of this little masterpiece was superb, the left hand's constant activity sometimes in the foreground, but more often a subtler part of the texture, ever-present but not overpowering, reminding us of the setting. The gradual swell of the right hand melody throughout the piece was very finely judged and the warm applause which greeted its close was a tribute to Tra's subtlety.
To close the recital, she chose Raff's largest single movement work for piano. The Variations on an Original Theme op.179 dates from 1873 and consists of no less than twenty variations, preceded by a slow introduction and the theme itself and rounded out with a maestoso finale. In all this massive work lasted half an hour, although after the recital Tra confided that she felt she would shave a couple of minutes off the timing as she developed her performance, this being its first public airing. In her introduction she stressed two things. Firstly, that in her experience the choice of a variations theme in 5/8 was highly unusual and showed Raff's independence of thought; it gave the whole work an anxious character. Secondly, that in her estimation this was "a good piece". It certainly is, indeed on this showing it's a monumental one.
An Andante introduction of dramatic chords and pregnant pauses leads to the Allegretto theme itself, in E minor, which at first hearing didn't seem to be one of the master's most distinguished melodies but which did indeed have a melancholy air to it. The first couple of variations maintain the same gentle tempo before things pick up and a faster pace is set. It would be idle to suggest that one can take in all that this magnificent piece has to offer even after several hearings and certainly not after just one. It's clear, though, that these are not symphonic variations, in the sense that they are cast broadly into sets which ape the sequence of symphonic movements. Generally, the tempi vary considerably from variation to variation and Raff makes good use of the opportunities for contrast which naturally arise, together with the drama of pauses to emphasise the closing of a chapter. I was reminded in several places of those two other great sets of variations from the piano suites: the Giga con variazione movement of the D minor Piano Suite and the G minor Suite's Volkslied mit Variationen. The emotional and dynamic range of the work is enormous: gorgeously limpid melodies, so typical of their creator, are followed by quicksilver filigree passages which in turn give way to sturm und drang heroics. The overall feeling is one of drama; this is not at all a "comfortable" piece but rather one born, as Tra had predicted, of anxiety. At the end, Raff doesn't deliver gentle consolation but an affirmative peroration in E major which brings the piece to a confident, thundering close.
The enthusiastic applause and "bravos" which marked the end of the recital were a tribute to the emotional intensity and pianistic power of Tra's performance and belied her modest assertion that this was still a "work in progress". Raff could take a bow too; chatting afterwards it was very gratifying to hear the audience's surprise that a composer of such accomplishment remained largely unknown and that a work of such power was not in the repertory.
Once again, Tra gave notice that she is a pianist to be reckoned with and Raff enthusiasts should be most grateful that she has taken up his music with such evangelical determination. It is to be hoped that her magnificent performance of the Variations will be committed to disc sooner rather than later.