Rokas Valuntonis pianistic perfection at St Mary’s

Tuesday 28 September 3.00 pm


Schumann: Kinderszenen Op 15

Chopin: Etudes Op 10

Gershwin: 3 preludes

Here is the HD link

Miracles do not often occur but today at St Mary’s a light was shining brightly as we were treated to such wondrous playing of total mastery that I was reduced to tears by the sheer perfection and beauty.
Not since Geza Anda have I heard such luminous sound and technical mastery allied to a musical imagination that brought everything so vividly to life.
I sat mesmerised listening to pieces I have known all my life as though for the first time as streams of poetical sounds flowed from his fingers with such well oiled ease.
Kinderszenen was unbelievably beautiful as each of the thirteen episodes was revealed with a sheen of sound that bound them into a wondrous whole.Chopin studies,that as he said , were a collection of jewels hidden in technical difficulties.Poetry for those that can master the difficulties , full of colour and magical sounds.
Gershwin played like Art Tatum in some dive in New York where all the great pianist used to go to marvel.
And marvel we did today.
There is only one word to describe what we heard today …sensational.

First edition title page

Schumann wrote 30 movements for this work but chose 13 for the final version of 1838.The unused movements were later published in Bunte Blatter op.99 and Albumblatter op 124.He initially intended to publish Kinderszenen together with Novelletten op 21 where the shared literary theme is suggested by the original title Kindergeschichten (Children’s Tales). He told his wife Clara that the “thirty small, droll things”, most of them less than a page in length, were inspired by her comment that he sometimes seemed “like a child”. He described them in 1840 as “more cheerful, gentler, more melodic” than his earlier works.

From the very first liquid notes we were immediately transported into a magic world of wondrous sounds and eloquence.The final piece is called the Poet Speaks but it was apparent from the very first note,and throughout the recital of short pieces,that each one was a jewel that was made to sparkle and shine,whisper and shout with loving care, as this young man delved deeply into the soul of each piece with a transcendental mastery of sound that was mesmerising.I remember Shura Cherkassky telling me that he did not think that young pianists listen to themselves – I just wish he could have been here today!

‘Of foreign lands and peoples’was played very slowly and simply with his extraordinary sense of balance that let the melody shine out above a whispered flowing accompaniment – sometimes the melodic line and accompaniment get mixed up at the end of the phrase but not for an artist who is listening like a Gerald Moore as he accompanies a Schwarzkopf or a de Los Angeles!There was charm and character as he deliberately played with the dotted rhythm in such a teasing way – ‘a curious story’ indeed as it alternated with exquisite legato comments.The feather light jeux perlé of ‘Blind man’s bluff’was not the usual explosion we so often hear but a child creeping and peeping into every corner.It led so naturally into the gentle ‘Pleading child’ who was ‘Happy enough’as the child obviously awoke amidst magic colours and sounds.A pompous ‘Important event’ but always within the context of the overall architectural shape of this fairy story.It is,after all, a dream as his exquisite sense of meaning ,full of shape and style,gave great delicacy to this most beautiful of pieces-‘Traumerei’.Creeping in to be ‘by the Fireside’ with its wondrously delicate ending before being interrupted by the ‘Knight on the hobby horse’ so deliberately careful as it rocked gently to and fro.Things we’re now getting ‘Almost too serious’ with its wondrous syncopated melodic line – as he hinted at the beautiful tenor counterpoint at the end.His mastery of balance gave such meaning to the ‘frightening’ interruptions as the melodic line passed from treble to tenor then bass as if by magic.With such sublime beauty and delicacy it is hardly surprising that the ‘Child falls asleep ‘ was dreaming of all these wonders that have appeared from the opening magic of foreign lands to paradise .There was a sublime ending before leading quite simply to the ‘Poet speaks’ played such simple beauty and subtle wisdom.A quite extraordinary performance that I have only once heard equalled by Guiomar Novaes

The first set of Études was published in 1833 (although some had been written as early as 1829). Chopin was twenty-three years old and already famous as a composer and pianist in the salons of Paris, where he made the acquaintance of Franz Liszt. Subsequently, Chopin dedicated the entire opus to him – “à mon ami Franz Liszt” .They are generally thought to be not quite as poetic as the second book op 25.Rokas today showed us just how much poetry there is in this first book hidden behind transcendental technical difficulties.The difficulties just disappeared in Rokas’s hands as he himself had said that his lockdown project had made him realise just how much poetry there is in these 12 miniature tone poems.With a circle of tonality that links them into a whole ,making the 6th study the focal point in the complete architectural conception.And it was this study above all the others that received a quite remarkably poignant performance of aching beauty.In the key of E flat minor and played with a subtle sense of shape and flexibility as it spoke so eloquently with such luminosity and intensity.It is like the 16th variation of Bach’s Goldberg -the real centre point of a great arch.The first study was a series of shifting harmonies in which neither the great anchor of the bass or the filigree accompaniment of the treble were given a priority but the shifting harmonies they produced were shaped into great arches of sound.The second study of chromatic scales in the right hand was played with such delicacy with the same irresistible lilt that I have never forgotten from the hands of Jan Smeterlin over fifty years ago.

Smeterlin had studied with Godowsky who had written fifty three studies based upon Chopin’s studies.It is interesting to note in the introduction to these studies that their aim is to develop ‘the mechanical,technical and musical possibilities of piano playing,and to expand the peculiarly adapted nature of the instrument to polyphonic,polyrhythmic and polydynamic work ,and to widen the range of it’s possibilities in tone colouring’.Anyone who has had the fortune to hear Shura Cherkassky play the sixth study for the left hand alone will realise what subtle shading and colour can be found by true masters of the instrument.It was just this mastery that was quite breathtaking today from Rokas as one sparkling jewel linked with another to be crowned by the final great added octave C at the end of the final ‘Revolutionary’ study.In the eleventh there were sounds woven in the air with the melodic line floating on a continuous harp like accompaniment.The acciaccaturas so clear were helped by the resonance he gave to the deep bass notes as it drew to a coquettishly delicate ending.Chopin’s very meticulous phrasing in the tenth study I have only heard so clearly and poetically realised from Geza Anda.This was preceded by the dark seriousness of the ninth played with a wonderful sense of balance that allowed the melodic line to float on a wave of sound.The absolute clarity of the ornaments incorporated into the return of the opening melody had me searching in the score as I had never been aware of this delicate touch before.Murray Perahia often has me searching in the score as he too illuminates details in works that I have lived with for a lifetime but have passed over unaware of their significance.Rokas showed us today that he has the great gift of illuminating details in scores as he digs deep into their poetical content.The seventh was strangely non legato but contrasted so well with the lyricism of the middle section.The eighth just sprang out of his fingers with an ease as if turning on a tap.Streams of golden sounds accompanying the delicacy of the left hand melodic line .The beautiful third study,sometimes known as ‘Tristesse’ ,was shaped with aristocratic style of such flexibility and good taste.The technically challenging middle section was incorporated into the overall shape instead of seeming like a rude interruption before the continuation of the sublime opening melody.Number four and five were played with extraordinary agility.There was passion and excitement in the fourth and irresistible sparkle in the fifth -the famous black key study that Myra Hess used to play for fun with an orange and two carrots!A quite extraordinary performance from Rokas who restored these often misunderstood ‘studies’ to their true realm of tone poems every bit as poignant as the Mazurkas that Schumann so rightly described as cannons covered in flowers.

The three preludes by George Gershwin were first performed by the composer at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City in 1926. Each prelude is a well-known example of early-20th-century American classical music as influenced by jazz.They were dedicated to friend and musical advisor Bill Daly.He originally planned to compose 24 preludes for this group of works but the \number was reduced to seven in manuscript form, and then reduced to five in public performance, and further decreased to three when first published in 1926.

What fun Rokas gave them as he let his hair down letting rip as he brought these three charmers vividly to life in great style.There was a full orchestra in the first one with rhythmic energy and a fantastic ending like a rocket taking off as he shot up to the top of the keyboard.Sleeze and decadence in the second, Rokas even added some of his own embellishments as he dug deep into the bass producing sounds of pure magic.A truly hypnotic sense of energy in the last famous prelude brought this short jazz interlude to a truly brilliant end.

Praised for his “liquidity of sound” and “devilish performances”, Lithuanian pianist Rokas Valuntonis has drawn admiration for his imaginative interpretations and striking virtuosity. A laureate of more than 20 international competitions, Valuntonis won 1st Prize at the 2018 Campillos International Piano Competition (Spain) and previous victories include both the International Music Competition “Societa Umanitaria” (Italy) and the Nordic Piano Competition (Sweden). Valuntonis has performed all over Europe, including Denmark, Finland, France, and Portugal, in venues such as Milton Court (Barbican Centre), La Sala Verdi, The Wallace Collection, Lithuanian National Philharmonic Hall, and La Sala Casella Accademia Filarmonica Romana. He has also performed with the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, Lund Symphony Orchestra, St Christopher Chamber Orchestra, Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, and Panevežys Chamber Orchestra. Aside from traditional concerts, Valuntonis has collaborated with both actors and presenters. His most recent collaboration, with the celebrated Lithuanian actor Kostas Smoriginas, explored the characters and emotional lives of great composers like Beethoven, Chopin, and Rachmaninov. The 2020/21 season sees Valuntonis present solo recitals around Europe in venues such as Lithuanian National Philharmonic (Lithuania), Klaipeda Concert Hall (Lithuania), Harpa Concert Hall (Iceland) and festivals such as Deal Arts and Music festival (UK), Barnes Music festival (UK), Summer of Piano music in Druskininkai (Lithuania). Growing up in Lithuania, Valuntonis studied at the Lithuanian Music and Theatre Academy under Aleksandra Zvirblyte, before attending the Sibelius Academy (Finland), followed by studies with Eugen Indjic in Paris and Artist Diploma studies at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London under Peter Bithell. Rokas joined the City Music Foundation Artist Programme in 2017. For his many achievements, Valuntonis has been honoured with the prestigious Queen Morta Award and acknowledgements by two Lithuanian Presidents. This year Rokas was awarded with “Jung Artist Grant” by Lithuanian Ministry of culture.


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