Ullman- the supreme stylist

Alexander Ullman the supreme stylist
Alexander Ullman at the Wigmore Hall
Little did I expect to be overwhelmed by Stravinsky twice in the same week in the same hall but that was just the case today .
Alexander Ullmans extraordinary performance today of the Firebird with only two hands was every bit as overwhelming as Andsnes and Hamelin’s Rite of Spring had been last week with four .
This extraordinary transcription was written by my old teacher Guido Agosti when he was only 27 in 1928 – only eight years after Stravinsky’s own transcription of Petroushka  which he dedicated to Rubinstein in an effort to convince him to play his music.
Agosti’s transcription is even more demanding that Stravinsky’s.
The colours and orchestral sounds that Agosti manages to conjure up together with the same savage rhythms that require the most enormous technical feats of agility and an almost polyphonic sense of line that spans the whole keyboard and ranges from pianississimo to fortissimo.
Andsnes,Hammelin,Rubinstein all great virtuosi but above all supreme stylists .
To this list we can add today the name of this remarkable young british pianist Alexander Ullman .
Student of William Fong at the Purcell School .Of Fleisher in Philadelphia and now at the Royal College with Ian Jones and Dmitri Alexeev.
The supreme control was not only in the virtuoso parts that certainly abound but also in the security that brought the savage driving rhythms to life and all this combined with an extraordinary range of colours .
The appearance of the melody in the Finale of the Firebird was sheer magic.
A rising sun that was allowed to shine in all its glory and brought this remarkable recital to a conclusion.
Liszt’s magical En Reve was just the right encore that allowed us to share just a little more magic from the hands of this remarkable young artist.
Bach’s Toccata in C minor showed right from the outset the intelligence of this young musician but it also made clear that this was a performance by a stylist not by a rigid scholar.
Although all Bach’s tempo markings were scrupulously noted Bach has in fact left much to the fantasy of the performer.
The slur at the end of the first subject was unexpected as was the echo effect on repetition but in the hands of such a stylist it was totally convincing as were the virtuoso interruptions seemingly almost improvised.
Nothing was added to Bach’s original score but it had the same power as a Busoni transcription and had one wondering why it is not more often played on the piano.
I think the last person I heard play it was that other supreme stylist Martha Argerich as a curtain raiser to the Liszt Sonata in Florence in 1972.
It has remained in my memory ever since as indeed today’s performance will for me and without doubt the very full audience that were present today.
Papillons op 2 by Schumann were an ideal choice after the Bach .
The freedom allied to a strict sense of direction and line were combined with all the kaleidoscopic sound world of Florestan and Eusebius .
The wonderfully lyrical 5th piece sang out as did the middle section of the 10th.
The quiet rhythmic build up in the 9th made a wonderful foil to the searing beauty of the 10th that is so reminiscent of the Davidsbundler op 6 that were to follow from Schumann’s pen.
If I found the fortissimo in the 8th piece rather overpowering his interpretation was completely vindicated by the final magical piece where Schumann’s pedal was scrupulously noted and opened up this magic box allowing the clock to strike so clearly as indeed Ravel was to do in Le Gibet.
The Pas de Deux at the conclusion of Pletnev’s wonderful transciption of The Nutcracker must be every pianists dream to play.
A secret wish to be a Liberace or Rawitz and Landauer.
But it requires supreme virtuosity to be able to sweep up and down the keyboard whilst allowing Tchaikowsky’s melody to sing out in all its glory.
Magical playing too in the Intermezzo where the wash of sound was a completely different sound world from the music box that was the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Russian Trepak played with all the peasant folk music that it portrays provided just the difference in sound from the quite extraordinary Chinese Dance.
Pletnev had played the Sleeping Beauty in my theatre in Rome many years ago and we marvelled at this old style virtuosity of the great romantic tradition a world we thought we would never experience in our day.
I remember Sandor asking why he wanted to be a conductor when he can play the piano like that .
The same supreme sense of control, colour and style that we heard today at the Wigmore Hall .
All thanks to YCAT and to the Keyboard Trust that has had such faith in this young man and in helping him mature into the artist we have before us today .
I think you could safely say that they have come up” trumps”.

All About Piano!

Piano Festival at the Institut Francais
Amazing 24 hours at the Institute Francais ..”All about Piano”
Melvyn Tan is a fellow disciple of the legendary Vlado Perlemuter so it was a great pleasure to complete this weekend in “France” with a visit to Perlemuter`s english home in Chelsea during a break from the numerous events at the Institute to share a private concert for Joan Booth by Leeds top prize winner Vitaly Pisarenko.
Now in its fifth year this special weekend dedicated to the piano has become a welcome oasis for all pianofiles .
Steinways abound in the Cine Lumiere,Library and Iselin Room. In fact the festival was born when the Institute decided to recondition their own beautiful Steinway – a very fine Steinway with a very special voice indeed . It was suggested that they could also host a Piano Festival with the participation of their friends at Steinways who could provide the other instruments .
Very interesting programmes organised by Francoise Clerc ,the artistic director ,who obviously knows ” all about pianos” . Ably helped by the managing director Elsa Martin and abetted by a wonderful french restaurant in the Institute itself .
It is a real oasis in the heart of South Kensington .
I managed to hear in 24 hours four concerts and a masterclass together with supporting performances from star students from the Paris and Royal Scottish Conservatoires. Apparently a different UK conservatory is approached each year to choose some of their fine students to perform along with those of the Paris Conservatoire .
Space is given not only in the Masterclass – this year Melvyn Tan – but also a short “curtain raiser” to the concerts of the more established artists . A wonderful idea to give these fine musicians an opportunity to play to a discerning public much along the lines of Pires and Argerich who so generously share their platform with the stars of tomorrow. This led to some remarkable performances from all concerned .
The opening concert starting with Melvyn Tan’s extraordinary performance of Jonathan Dove’s “Catching Fire” . A toccata type piece especially commissioned by Cheltenham Festival last year for as Melvyn Tan explained a “very important birthday”. It was the second piece that Dove had written for the artist and this time he was asked to write a piece that would be a ” work out”. It certainly was that and received a thrilling performance by this very individual artist.
His Beethoven op 109 and Liszt’s Sonata in B minor had some very memorable things but also suffered from trying to share too many things in his overwhelming love for the music he was performing . This love was shared and defined the following morning with two very fine students Alexandre Lory from RSC and George Todica from the Paris Conservatoire. In the Chopin Andante Spianato Melvyn Tan was able to explain that a more classical approach would in the end be more expressive and noble exactly as I remember Perlemuter would do.
In fact in the Schumann Fantasy that George Todica played I was reminded of my own lessons with Perlemuter and a score covered in annotations .Some fine playing much appreciated by Melvyn Tan who also explained how important it was his work with singers to learn how and where to breath with the music on an instrument where it is quite possible to play in a totally mechanical way without a single stop for breath!
Reminded of so many things and it was wonderful to see how the artist seemed to move and sway whilst the students played so expressively demonstrating what Chopin himself used to tell his students about tempo rubato.Likening it to a tree with the roots in the ground but the branches free to sway in the breeze.
Tristan Pfaff in the library played a wonderful programme of pieces that he explained “first of all I love these pieces of music ” . It sounded just like that on this beautiful reconditioned Steinway that has such a magnificent voice. Hommage a Edith Piaf and Les Chemins de l’Amour by Poulenc were followed by some Debussy pieces including his wonderfully suggestive “La plus que lente”. Very interesting transcription by Weissenberg of Charles Trenet En Avril a Paris . The Barcarolle by Offenbach in a rare transcription by Moszkowski (Perlemuters first teacher). La mort de Thais by Massenet in another rare transcription by Saint Saens . Ending after Liebestraum and the 3rd consolation with Horowitz’s spectacular Racoczy March . Spectacularly played I was reminded of Perlemuter’s description of Rachmaninov playing in public . He thought he was the greatest most romantic of pianist he had heard even though he looked as though he had swallowed a knife, In fact some wonderfully seductive playing which was for me the highlight of my marathon this weekend but from a young man that just did not look the part at all!
The opposite of Cedric Pescia who did . I had just read in the Gramophone such a wonderful review for his Schumann series that he is sharing with the likes of Francesco Piemontesi and Finghin Collins as part of a collaboration with the Clara Haskil Competition with Claves . He had studied at the International Piano Academy in Lake Como and am sure he has played in my theatre in Rome as part of our collaboration with that remarkable teacher William Grant Nabore.
A concert with the title of Beethoven meets Cage . And was the juxtapostion of prepared piano and late Beethoven and their relation to silence.
In fact after a performance of Beethoven’s last Sonata we were were invited to participate in Cage’s 4’33” which is in fact total silence.
The Sonatas for prepared piano of Cage were given some very strong performance with some very interesting original sounds. The Beethoven Sonata op.111 could indeed have benefitted from more preparation from this very fine player and I sincerely hope he is not going to abandon his classical training for what are experiments in sound /silence.
Still time to cross over to Chelsea to hear Vitaly Pisarenko play on Perlemuter’s piano in an informal concert in preparation for his recital as top prize winner in Leeds International Piano Competition
Back in time to hear Barry Douglas the Gold prize winner in 1986 at the Tchaikowsky competition in Moscow . Some very strong playing from this amazing Irish pianist. Not least his architectural performance of Schubert’s great C minor Sonata allowing the music to move forward without wallowing in the sublime moments that abound. The Brahms Paganini variation were given a truly musicianly performance where all the great technical demands passed into second place to the structure and shape of this monumental work. After much insistence from a full hall we were treated to encore of an Irish folk melody exquisitely but never sentimentally played . This was playing serious musicianship and technical prowess.
Much looking forward to an “Englishman Abroad “again next year.