Tag Archives: Piano Music

Keyed-Up recital series



Zen Zeng (piano) and friends

reviewed by Helen Fintlean


This was a Keyed-Up program with a difference, very far away from the standard piano recital format that audiences have experienced over the years. Instead, we saw a host of artists who featured in a program of music and dance from Spain.



In the first half of the program, Zen Zeng drew on the keyboard repertoire of the Iberian peninsula in works by Albeniz, de Falla and Turina. It was the last mentioned’s Noche de la Feria and La Ofrenda in which Zen Zeng sounded most at home, giving point and meaning to music seldom heard here and  which, in lesser hands, might easily have sounded prosaic. And nimble fingers were a prime focus of attention in Falla’s much-loved Andaluza as they were, too,  in the villainously demanding El Puerto and Corpus Christi en Sevilla from Albeniz’ Iberia.


In the minds of most people, flamenco is inextricably associated with the guitar. But in recent decades, there has been a growth of interest in piano music in flamenco style – and here we heard Zen Zeng in her own Solea which fell most agreeably on the ear.


In a most resourcefully compiled program, we also heard ace percussionist Steve Richter in duo with Zen Zeng in Camaron de la Isla’s Rosa Maria. I admired the skill with which piano and percussion integrated. It was an offering of considerable charm. Indeed, throughout the evening, Richter’s very real understanding of percussion made his every contribution most appealing.


Later, Zen Zeng was joined by castanets virtuoso Deanna Blacher in arrangements for piano and castanets of two of Granados’ most popular Danzas Espanolas. These were highlights of the program which, for those who have attended numbers of Keyed-Up recitals in the past, would have been considerably off the beaten track and opening new aesthetic vistas.


In a collaboration between Zen Zeng and Danza Viva Spanish Dance Company, Nicola de la Rosa gave a performance of splendid technical accomplishment, controlled emotion and exceptional grasp of style in a traditional Tangos – and was later joined by an on-form Karen Henderson in a no-less spirited and lively Bulerias. And to conclude the proceedings, something quite unexpected: an arrangement for castanets and piano of Rimsky Korsakov’s much loved Flight of the Bumblebee which brought the house down.

 Zen Zeng



 Roger Benedict (viola), Ben Jacks (horn), Timothy Young (piano)

music by Charles Koechlin and Joseph Jongen

TPT: 68’36”

MELBA CD 301126

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Is there a more treacherous instrument in the string family than the viola? How intractable it can be to those many who endeavour to play it in tune but succeed only fitfully. But when Roger Benedict tucks it under his chin, how perfectly behaved it is. Here indeed is a viola tamed – and it does his master’s bidding to the most beguiling of ends in a way that most other violists would give their eye teeth to emulate. It is impossible to overstate the merit of this recorded recital; it brims to overflowing with good things, not least the stream of often exquisitely mellow tone which Benedict conjures from the instrument.


Here’s a fascinating compilation, well off the beaten track – and yet another instance of Melba’s adventurous forays into the seldom heard, even less seldom recorded.


Charles Koechlin’s Sonata for viola and piano (which years later would be followed by sonatas for cello and for horn) is a major opus to which both Benedict and Young bring a wealth of experience and insight.


Koechlin’s sonata is unlikely ever to reach the top ten of viola favourites. There is little about it which could be thought of as either memorably catchy or of Olympian profundity. But it is nonetheless a valuable addition to the sadly small repertoire of music for the instrument – and it is played with such beauty of tone and insights of such intense musicality that it holds the attention from first note to last. Certainly, the dark and sombre nature of the opening adagio is wonderfully evoked – as is the wild dance that is the essence of the scherzo. And the calm, thoughtful approach to the extended soliloquy which takes up much of the third movement is musical to the nth degree.


I particularly liked Koechlim’s Quatre Petites Pieces in which Benedict and Young are joined by Ben Jacks whose horn playing here is the stuff of aural delight, enchanting  moments that would surely charm the grumpiest bird from a twig. The musical chemistry of the trio is constantly apparent here, not least in the opening andante in which a songlike viola and Jacks at his winning best make magic. I particularly admired the skilled and most effective internal tonal balance. Young is everywhere convincing, not least in finely stated, rippling figurations in the movement marked tres modere.


Benedict and Young come up trumps, too, in four engaging pieces by Belgian composer Joseph Jongen. These, too, are as polished in presentation as the Koechlin works.

The Great Spanish Pianists


The Great Spanish Pianists

The Original Piano Roll Recordings

Music by Albeniz, de Falla, Granados, Segovia – and Ravel

performed by de Falla, Granados, Segovia – and Rudolf Ganz

Dal Segno DSPRCD037

reviewed by Neville Cohn


In earlier days when the piano roll was briefly king, there were any number of what looked like perfectly ordinary pianos in the front parlours of innumerable homes across the world. But ordinary they were not. They were constructed in a way that allowed them to be used for the playing of piano rolls. Once the latter had been inserted into its proper place in the innards of the instrument, the notes of the keyboard would fall and rise eerily as if under the control of some ghostly, perhaps long-dead, pianist. It was not long in vogue, though, and quite soon the 78rpm shellac record disc would depose  the piano for ever.


Periodically, the musical riches of the piano rolls are made available on compact disc.


This collection is devoted almost entirely to piano music of Spain played by eminent Spanish musicians. But one track – of Albeniz’s ubiquitous Tango in D (not to be confused with the far less well known Tango in A) – is played by that greatest of all Brazilian pianists, Guiomar Novaes. This is pure magic, ineffably fine; it should be required listening for anyone – teacher or pianist – essaying this miniature which is regularly massacred by earnest schoolchildren at this or that eisteddfod.


There’s also a novelty: Ravel’s Bolero in a piano version offered by the long-dead Austrian musician Rudolf Ganz, now almost forgotten. Some pianists may recall the cadenza he wrote for Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D. The piano version of Bolero’s mesmeric snare drum part in Bolero can be tricky to bring off well. It is less than perfectly managed here. But it detracts only minimally from listening pleasure.


More interesting by far are the few tracks by Paquita Segovia, student of Granados who was once married to the great classical guitarist Andres Segovia. Listen to her splendidly characterful playing, with tone colourings that charm the ear. For modern tastes,Segovia’s approach to rhythm is at times curiously wayward. But she brings huge flair to her playing, as in Albeniz’ Aragonesa from opus 47; it pulses with life with consistent buoyancy in terms of both mood and momentum.


Granados has the lion’s share of the compilation. It’s a curious and tragic irony that this composer, who had a horror of travelling on water, was to die by drowning. Unlike his fellow Catalonian, Isaac Albeniz (who had an insatiable wanderlust), Granados far preferred to remain in his native Spain. And it was only a profound desire to be present at the world premiere of his opera Goyescas in New York that overrode his travel phobia.This was in 1916.


In the English Channel (on the way home), the steamship Sussex was hit by a German torpedo. Mrs Granados jumped into the water and her husband dived in to help her. Both perished. The dreadful irony is that the ship didn’t sink but eventually limped into port. How uncannily true the fortune teller turned out to be.


Only a few days before sailing from New York, Granados visited the Duo-Art studios where he made a number of piano rolls of, among some of his other works, his Danzas Espanolas Nos 2, 5, 7 and 10. They make fascinating listening. Dance No 5 in E minor (Andaluza), far and away the best known of the set, is played with fluctuating tempi and notes added in relation to the printed score. Entire bars are deleted from No 10 and, like Andaluza, is presented with a rhythmical freedom which sounds extraordinarily inapposite to early 21st century ears.  In fact, if any pianist were brave or rash enough to emulate Granados’ playing style along these lines nowadays, they be clobbered by the critics and booed by the audience. Incidentally, the piece described as Dance No 1 is most definitely not the first dance – or any other – of the set of twelve pieces comprising Danzas Espanolas.


And track 10, Spanish Waltzes, opens with a vignette that is most certainly not in triple time. Here, the playing cries out for digital discipline; it teeters occasionally on  the brink of hysteria.


Listen to Manuel de Falla playing his own In Cuban Style; his musicianship is stunning, the playing alive in the very best sense, as is his Aragonesa which comes across in an enchantingly improvisatory way.


This is fascinating fare that should appeal to anyone interested in the history of recorded sound.

Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992)

A centenary tribute

by Neville Cohn






Many composers have been inspired by birds, whether through their song or flight. The latter is typified by Vaughan Williams’ sublimely beautiful The Lark Ascending. And the call of the cuckoo is instantly recognisable in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Think, too, of Schubert’s ecstatic song “Hark, hark the Lark” to words by Shakespeare. But it was Olivier Messiaen above all who found often white hot inspiration in bird song. He was an amateur ornithologist with a huge knowledge of bird life.


His excruciatingly difficult Catalogue d’Oiseaux (which Michael Kieran Harvey will play for PIAF in February) is testament to the finesse he brought to the job of painstakingly notating birdsong from many regions in France. He wrote it while his first wife, seriously ill, languished in hospital for 12 years before dying in 1959.

Messiaen  said that during this time, birdsong was a refuge to which he turned again and again, “in my darkest hours, when my uselessness is brutally revealed to me”.


Happier times were to come when he and his second wife Yvonne Loriod (for whom Messiaen wrote some of his greatest works) became a familiar site around France – and to a much lesser extent in Japan, Israel, North and South America.


Loriod, Messiaen’s muse, with tape recorder at the ready, the composer with paper and pencil, erasers and note books as well as binoculars, worked indefatigably to capture on paper the subtlest nuances of each bird’s cry and call.


More often than not, Messiaen’s piano music is excruciatingly  difficult. And while the composer was a fair pianist, he knew his technique was simply not up to the demands of his own compositions. Little Olivier taught himself to play on a broken down instrument belonging to an uncle. Then and throughout his life, he said, that he “knew, instinctively, that anything he might ever compose needed to be interesting (and) beautiful to listen to, to touch the listener”.


Instead of toys as gifts at Xmas, little Olivier preferred by far, presents of orchestral scores which he would read in bed with as much enthusiasm and focus as another child might read a Superman or Bugs Bunny comic. In this, he was similar to Benjamin Britten as a child.


On his 10th birthday, one of little Olivier’s teachers gave the child a score of Debussy’s opera Pelleas and Melisande which was, the composer recalled, “a revelation  – probably the most decisive influence of my life – it had never been listened to with such attention.”


“I didn’t get a piano prize at the Conservatoire (Paris)”, he once said. “I knew I would never have the virtuosity and the absolutely amazing technical possibilities of Yvonne Loriod” who premiered many of his works for piano.


In their painstaking gathering of birdsong, Messiaen and his wife were walking in the footsteps of Bartok and Vaughan Williams who had both had spent considerable amounts of time trekking through remote areas to notate and record the folk melodies of rapidly disappearing rural communities.


For most  birdwatchers, the thrill is seeing this bird or that and making a note of it. For Messiaen, though, that was only the beginning of capturing the essence of the bird’s song by notating it meticulously and then working it into whatever composition Messsiaen required it for.


The composer, in awe of birdsong, once said that “it is probable that in the artistic hierarchy, birds are the greatest musicians existing on our planet”.


Although it was the birdlife of his native France that received most of Messiaen’s attention, he was no less fastidious in notating the calls and cries of winged creatures across the world, as in, say, Malaysia and China. One of the earliest examples of Messiaen making use of bird calls in his own music is La Merle Noir (The Blackbird) for flute and piano. As he became more skilled in using birdsong in his music, he would, from time to time, use bird calls which he would weave together in fugal style – and these are marvels of contrapuntal intricacy. 


But if the songs of birdlife were a prime pre-occupation, there were any number of other factors which triggered his imagination: stalactites, bell chimes, galaxies and photons – and landscapes in general and mountains in particular. The music he wrote as a result of a visit to southern Utah in the USA resulted in a  feature of the area being rechristened Mount Messiaen. This may well be the only mountain anywhere in the world named after a composer. Messiaen’s imagination  was often triggered, too, by paintings, one, for instance,  showing the Virgin kneeling in contemplation, worshipping her unborn Child – or by a tapestry representing Christ on a horse, wielding a sword; these keyboard responses are found in Messiaen’s Twenty Contemplations of the Christ Child.


Creative juices almost invariably flowed at the sight of light shining through stained glass windows. This, the composer once enthused, “is one of the most wonderful creations of man. You are overwhelmed. For me, it is the beginning of Paradise”.


His fascination with stained glass was a natural result of his ability, noted when he was still a child, of associating different colours with different tonalities ie he would see colours when listening to sound. There was another youthful epiphany: “I noticed an extraordinary thing (when aged six year). I was reading, and I could HEAR what I was reading in my head”. These were pointers to a rare musical gift.


Since his childhood, Messiaen was profoundly religious; a devout Catholic his entire life. This was somewhat surprising in that he was brought up in a home that was conspicuously agnostic and irreligious.


Messiaen, incidentally, was organist at La Trinite, Paris for 60 years from the age of 22 years until his death at 83.