The Trilogy of Francis Grier at St Mary’s Perivale

Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonata n.30 in E major op 109

Vivace ,ma non troppo – Prestissimo -Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo

Sonata n.31 in A flat major op 110

Moderato cantabile ,molto espressivo -Allegro molto-Adagio ma non troppo – Fuga

Sonata n.32 in C minor op 111

Maestoso-Allegro con brio ed appassionato-Arietta:Adagio molto semplice e cantabile

“He is a genius, and I don’t say that about many people. Absolutely amazing for a 65 year old with about 3 other major careers !” So wrote Hugh Mather who being a pianist,organist,retired physician and concert promoter should know.

I was very intrigued to be able to hear Dr Grier ,who I had heard in Trio with his daughters but never in a solo recital!The three last Sonatas by Beethoven.What greater test could there be of intelligence,pianistic skill and that elusive quality that some may describe as soul?

I remember a renowned critic who was only able to listen to the last three sonatas in a concert at the Wigmore Hall for the second performance. Such was the demand for an earlier performance, that was also relayed live on the radio,that a repeat performance had been arranged an hour later.It was the end of a long much praised journey of all the 32 Sonatas .I listened at home on the radio with the Urtext at hand and a glass of wine in the other ready to switch off if need be.

It was one of the most remarkable performances that I have heard where every note was mirrored in the score with such intelligence and temperament.I asked my colleague what he thought of the repeat performance a few hours later.”Well” he replied”When I heard Arrau or Serkin play the same trilogy at the Festival Hall not only were they visibly elated and exhausted but the audience were too””It would have been impossible to contemplate a repeat performance after a cup of tea!”Make of that what you will!

Elusive indeed .Beethoven demanded a lot from himself with a kaleidoscope of feelings from the sublime to the ridiculous in a framework that evolved over a lifetime from the early Sonatas op 2 through op 31 and 57 to the monumental Hammerklavier op 106.They opened a new way – the gate to heaven maybe- to the last three sonatas. Beethoven had come to terms with life as a cloud seemed to lift and indications appear such as Adagio espressivo,Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo,Leggiermente,cantabile,Arioso dolente,Arietta:Adagio molto semplice e cantabile.

Even the very last Sonata finishes pianissimo in the major key.There are of course flashes of the irascibile temperament of his youth but they soon give way to a serenity and calm often with the magic sound of trills accompanying thematic material.

Today listening to this 65 year old polyhedric gentleman as he played these three monumental works,I was struck by the extreme simplicity and directness with which he comunicated Beethoven’s last thoughts on the Sonata.

The 32 Sonatas that St Mary’s had offered only a few weeks ago with 32 pianists over two days as their contribution for the 250th anniversary celebrations.I might also talk of their generosity and humanity in offering a professional engagement to 32 pianists in this time of crisis for musicians in a world struck dumb by a totally unexpected pandemic.

It was obvious from the very first bars that here was a musician of intelligence who could transmit the very essence of the music through the composer’s very detailed indications in the score.Op 109 started as though a door had opened and we were eavesdropping on something that had already begun in the distance.Interrupted by cadenza type passages in Adagio espressivo episodes before disappearing into the distance from where if had begun.Rudely interrupted by the Prestissimo second movement which in Dr Griers hands was the same orchestra with never any addition of Tchaikovskian brass!There was great energy but with a sheen to the sound that gave a great sense of line to the trilogy from the opening of op 109 through the almost pastoral op 110 to the magically atmospheric end of op 111.The Andante molto espressivo and variations were played with a simplicity but also a weight that did not allow any sentimentality – there is no place for romantic rhetoric in Beethoven.The first variation that so often can sound like a slow waltz was here played with true aristocratic sentiment – molto espressivo as the composer beseaches us.The leggiermente of the second variation was alternated with it’s cantabile trills.Some very solid playing in the third contrasted so well with the fragmented fourth.Rock solid Allegro ma non troppo of the fifth heralding the return of the main theme (so similar to the 22nd variation of Bach’s Goldberg) and its eventual disintigration as it reaches for the stars and the sublime opening of op 110 that follows.There was a luminosity of sound and simplicity in this opening that we were to find again in the Arietta of op 111.

The Allegro molto of the second movement was again beautifully judged and never allowed any percussiveness as this great architectural arch was always foremost in Dr Grier’s interpretation .There was a memorable unfolding of the chords as the Adagio moved to piu adagio- even slower.The luminosity of the bebung (repeated notes that on the original instruments of the time could almost be made to vibrate)was ravishing and led to the heartrending simplicity of one of Beethoven’s most sublime creations.Beethoven’s frenzy at the end of the fugue was more restrained than Serkin and owed more to the complete command of Arrau.

The commanding Maestoso of op 111 was played with great authority and although the Allegro con brio ed appassionato that followed was not quite like ‘water boiling at 100°’ according to Perlemuter who had studied with Schnabel,it had a great sense of line and smoothed over the jagged corners that every so often slipped from Beethoven’s pen in his final thoughts.The Adagio was played in three and not nine as is so often the case. It gave a forward impulse to the Arietta and variations .Agosti often had to point this out to the pianists that flocked each summer to his studio in Siena: Adagio ………..molto semplice e cantabile. Dr Grier’s simplicity and sense of architectural shape was quite overwhelming as it moved inexorably and inevitably into a better world.

Dr Mather was so moved he almost found it impossible to talk about donations after such an emotionally moving experience.

Francis Grier was born 29 July 1955 in Kota Kinabalu,Malaysia and used to be organist of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and gave the first ever Prom concert given over to a solo performer in 1985. He is now a psychoanalyst and composer. In 2006 his Passion , commissioned by the BBC and VocalEssence in Minneapolis was described by the Independent as “a work of vital attack, shivering beauty and compelling power…”, and by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as “a modern masterpiece.” He was awarded a British Composer Award for his Missa Brevis (2011) for St Paul’s Cathedral. As a chamber music pianist he has recorded with Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis, and has performed with Colin Carr, Louise Williams and Andrew Marriner – as well as with his daughters Savitri and Indira. In June 2018 the Choir of King’s College Cambridge digitally released Lit by Holy Fire ; in September a CD was released of his organ music performed by Tom Winpenny at St Albans Abbey. His new oratorio Before All Worlds will be performed by the BBC Singers in November 2020.

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