On the road to Paradise.
Some very fine playing in the beautiful surroundings of the British Institute in Florence.
A room with a view indeed surrounded by the books of Harold Acton in this library that he bequeathed to the British Institute.
Harold Acton a great aesthete from the times when Florence attracted artists that had the possibility and wish to dedicate themselves to the beauty that is still at the very roots of this beautuful city.
He left his famous villa “La Pietra” to New York University having been turned down by his Alma Mater at Oxford on the grounds that it would be too onerous to maintain!
That other almost contemporary Bernard Berenson left “I Tatti” to Harvard University.
Ashley is on a four year course with Elisso Virsaladze in Fiesole.
Having won eight years ago the Gold Medal at the Guildhall he has come under the spell of this extraordinary lady whom he met in the summer school of another small town in Italy: Sermoneta .
As this highly talented,intelligent young man realised, immediately, the road to paradise is long and arduous indeed.
If there is someone who can indicate the way to the exceptionally gifted young pianists that flock five times a year to her mastercourse,it is this humble lady much admired by Richter and his peers.
Amazingly at 78 she had come directly from her triumphant recital in Milan (they tell me her Schumann Fantasie was memorable) ready to dedicate herself eight hours or more a day to sharing her secrets with her admiring and adoring students that had come from all parts of the world.
Ashley is now coming to the end of his four years in ‘paradise’ and at the same time completing his doctorate in London on the work of Thomas Ades:
“Ashley Fripp is a genuine virtuoso,an astoundingly brilliant and masterly pianist and his total grasp of the music is a joy to hear”.
The words of Thomas Ades were amply demonstrated in the recital he gave last night rapturously received by a very discerning public.
It has hopefully signalled the start of much music in this hallowed library overlooking the Ponte Vecchio.
Music was the only thing missing…..up to now!
I had followed the masterclasses in Fiesole during the day and had heard a veritable feast of music.
From Beethoven Sonata op 90 and Bagatelles op 126.Haydn’s charming little two movement Sonata in C and Chromatic Fantasie of Bach.Through an extraordinary Scarbo and a contemporary virtuoso piece for left hand alone Tapiola Visioins op 92 by Takashi Yoshimatsu( a much discussed title ‘Commas of birds’..Google to the rescue here) and finally Schumann Piano Concerto.
All superbly played just waiting to be pointed in the right direction or at least another more musically inspired one!
What fun Elisso had conducting the wonderfully charming Haydn last movement or sitting at the piano to show how the glorious phrasing of Schumann could illuminate the many sometimes seemingly empty notes.
But it was Ashley just a few hours before his totally different recital programme who presented Schubert’s last sonata in B flat .
Just a few indications from Elisso who knew that although this was work in progress it was in the hands of a master musician who would always treat the score with such loving and intelligent care .
He would,however, appreciate some indications from a ‘policeman’who had known the area for a lifetime!
Just an hour of music at the British Institute presented by their enlightened director Simon Gammell.
Two impromptus by Schubert D 935 (op 142n.1) and D899 (op 90 n.2)
contrasted with two by Chopin n.1 op 29 and n.2 op 36.
These acted as an introduction to Chopin’s B minor Sonata op 58.
It was immediately apparent the liquid sound that Ashley sought on this old but still noble Bechstein.
It allowed the lyricism of this late Impromptu to be shaped with such loving care and sense of colour.
His refined musicianship never allowed for any sentimentality but a nobility carried forward by an inner rhythmic energy which gave great architectural shape to this the most noble of Schuberts eight impromptus.
It was the same aristocratic elegance and simplicity that I remember from Annie Fischer.
Elisso knew that Annie Fischer had played in my theatre in Rome and told the story of her visiting the class of Neuhaus whilst giving a concert in Moscow.She remembered that this much revered legendary pianist wanted to play a Bartok Concerto to them but amongst Neuhaus’s students there were none that knew the concerto or could play the second piano with her!
This was after Richter and Gilels had left this illustrious nest and were already flying high.
The impromptu in E flat that followed ran like water in a brook with a jeux perlé shaped with such colour and beauty.The march like middle section contrasting so beautifully in the hands of a musician who had known how to achieve such a sense of balance and rigour.
It is a long time since I have heard the Chopin Impromptus in the concert hall.
Hats off to Ashley for choosing to contrast them with the preceding ones of Schubert.
The A flat Impromptu was played with an irresistible charm where the pianists agile hands just seemed to fly over the keys with a lightness and subtle rubato that led the way to the more dramatic Impromptu in F sharp.
A beautiful sense of balance allowed the melody to sing so naturally without any hardness as it did when it transfered to the left hand towards the end with cascades of notes lightly brushing the keys like an artist adding a wash of colour to a masterpiece.
It was the B minor Sonata of Chopin though that showed off the remarkable musicianship and sensibility of this pianist.
Here was a musician from a great school ….the school of that great Dame of the piano here in Fiesole.
It was the passionate, robust recapitulation of Chopin’s second subject that gave such weight and importance to what is so often refered to as Chopin’s weak sense of structure in his sonatas and concertos.
It added the seal to a very taught sense of structure in which Chopin’s sublime melodic invention was allied to a very precise framework.
This second subject in the opening Allegro Maestoso was then allowed to dissolve so magically.
Remarkable too was ‘the knotty twine’ in the middle section of the Scherzo played with such an unusually clear sense of line.
The faster outer sections thrown off with an ease like streams of light during the night.
Magical feux follets indeed.
There was magic in the air too with the sublime stillness that he found in the coda of the slow movement.
I would have linked the final chords of the Scherzo with the arresting call to arms of the slow movement.But his playing and sense of stillness and shape that he brought to this movement created a heatfelt contrast to the scintillating virtuosity of the relentless Presto finale.
In Fiesole influenza had been passing from one student to the other.
Elisso assured me that it was not the corona virus!
But unfortunately it was Ashley’s turn and so meant that his great professionalism had allowed him to come to the end of his recital not without some discomfort, of course unnoticed by the public.
It meant,though, that after a very exciting performance of the Presto finale of the B minor Sonata he had no energy left to offer an encore to a very enthusiastic audience.
A nice glass of wonderful Chianti ensured an almost complete recovery and will be recommended to all the future stars that will be invited to shine in this unique venue
Simon Gammell OBE director of the British Institute
On the road to paradise. Elisso Virsaladze in Fiesole
The Villa Music Accademy in Fiesole
The Paradise Road in Fiesole
Elisso Virsaladze with Ashley