A beautiful tribute by Benjamin Frith to his much missed teacher Dame Fanny Waterman.
She would often tell me how eloquent I was as indeed Ben was tonight in Oleg and Pollina Kogan’s Rasumovsky Academy.
But it was the beauty of the playing of this Gold medal winner of the Rubinstein competition that would have thrilled her more than any words.
Someone who still knows how to ‘mould’ as she would so simply describe the real Matthay legato.Playing of real intelligence and musical integrity as you might expect having studied since childhood with someone who simply declared that she was the reincarnation of Mozart!
It avoided any discussions or doubts with her young students who might question her sterling musicianship.
Ravishing sounds from this piano that once belonged to Fou Ts’ong and that lovingly restored is now cherished by Oleg.
In Ben’s hands tonight it gleamed and shone as it must have done in Ts’ongs hands and it could not have found a more warm and welcoming home.
A home built with love and passion by Oleg with his own hands.The hands of a renowned cellist who has created this beautiful venue where the predominance of wood has been lovingly restored by him as if it were indeed his own cello.
Some fascinating reminiscences of a childhood shaped by Dame Fanny and that led Dennis Matthews to describe the 14 year old Benjamin Frith as the ‘Prodigy of Prodigies’.In 1989 he was awarded the Gold Medal at the Rubinstein Competition ,tying with Ian Fountain,the only British pianists ever to have won this very prestigious prize,having already won the top prize in the 1986 Busoni Competition in Bolzano.In fact I first met Dame Fanny in Oxford where she was giving Masterclasses in Marios Papadopoulos’s annual Piano Festival.I was with a young Russian pianist who the keyboard Trust had taken under their wing .I asked her ,rather mischievously,if she would like to meet the winner of her next competition in Leeds.’Come with me’ she said to the young Russian pianist ,‘play me something classical ‘.Vitaly Pisarenko went on to win a top prize in the competition.
Ben tells the story too of Irving Moskovitz calling from New York.’Would you please book me a room at the Queens Hotel.I am coming over to Leeds ,and I’m bringing the winner with me .’Really?’asked Fanny.’Well if he doesn’t win I want to be there to hear the pianist who beats him’.Murray Perahia’s performance of the ‘Davidsbundlertanze ‘had many of the jury members in tears and of course he swept the board being already the great pianist the world has since recognised.Ben remembers hearing the performance a year later and falling in love with it.Ben’s recording of it since has been highly praised by the critics .And it was with this work that he chose to close his tribute to Dame Fanny,transforming Ts’ongs Steinway D into a jewel box of emotions of ravishing beauty.
Fou Ts’ong used to come to my concert series in Rome every year and his wife Patsy used to thank me for being so faithful.Thank me!But it is I that should thank him for sharing with us not only his performances but also his unique musical knowledge with young musicians in his Masterclasses for over ten years One year I had suggested he might like to look at the ‘Davidsbundler’which he immediately fell in love with.He played it the next time he came to Rome but unfortunately I was on tour with our theatre company at the other end of Italy.’Oh Chris’,he exclaimed ‘ it is as though I have cooked you a sumptuous meal and you did not turn up to eat it!’Just a few years ago I had listened to a concert on Radio 3 from my home in the depths of the Italian countryside and in writing to Dame Fanny sending her birthday greetings,I mentioned how moved I had been by Graham Johnson’s wonderful accompaniments .She immediately replied saying that she too had listened on the radio in Leeds and considered Graham the greatest living accompanist of our day.Graham and I had been students together at the Royal Academy and when I told him of Dame Fanny’s enthusiasm he immediately thanked her and that day a beautiful friendship was sealed.I was pleasantly surprised one year when she accepted an invitation to a Keyboard Trust concert at the Brazilian Embassy in the beautiful Cunard Hall in Trafalgar Square.Unknown to Pablo Rossi the brilliant Brazilian pianist she sat in the front row and nodded her head on every note that he played.She was much feted by an audience full of distinguished musicians and of course Pablo was thrilled to think such a leggendary figure had come to hear him.’You are such a wonderful host’,she affectionately exclaimed as I hailed a taxi to take her to the Hotel Club where she was staying.
She and Menahem Pressler are the only two people I have ever met that listen with such untiring concentration to every single note that is played.Even Pressler complains though that when he is on the jury of Fanny’s competition in Leeds she wants him to sit next to her.So while many jury members are able to nod off for a second in the afternoon of a long session,Pressler sitting with Dame Fanny has to stay continuously alert!There are many anecdotes that Ben affectionately shared with his audience but it was his music making that stood for all the principles that this great lady fought for in her long life.He was often called on to play in fund raising concerts where Fanny would ask him to play works that were easily accessible to an aristocracy that would be the life blood of her competition.Mendelssohn was Queen Victoria’s favourite composer and so as he was playing invariably in Victorian mansions for fund raising concerts Mendelssohn must be included.The two ‘Songs Without Words’ that he played today op 67 n.1 & 2 immediately showed off his ‘moulding’ with ravishing legato playing.The melodic line just floating on a stream of golden sounds as the melody was beautifully shaped with delicious embellishments and a real feeling of nostalgia of times passed.The second ‘Song’ showed his transcendental control of sound and colour with a subtle melodic line accompanied by staccato notes of such exquisite delicacy.There was also a musicianly architectural shape to this miniature tone poem with a subtle refined finale just thrown off with the charm and ease of another age.
The concert had opened with two contrasting Sonatas by Scarlatti.K 213 in D minor was played with subtle delicacy of pastoral atmosphere with beautifully varied sounds.K 492 in D major was played with a crystalline clarity and a rhythmic exuberance that immediately betrayed Scarlatti’s Spanish roots.There was playful charm but also passion and clockwork precision with glitteringly characterful jewels much as I remember Ts’ongs inimitable playing of these very works.
The variations on a theme of Schumann op 9 ,deeply elegiac,is Brahms’s first true masterpiece in the genre. The almost overwhelming pathos of this work mirrors the circumstances of its composition in proximity to the stricken Schumann household in Düsseldorf in May and June of 1854 (apart from variations 10 and 11, which were inserted in September). Schumann had only recently been confined in the Bonn asylum for the insane, leaving his wife Clara, pregnant with their seventh child, to look after their five surviving children. She is the work’s dedicatee; Brahms brought each of his variations to show her as he composed them as his love for Clara was tinged with his respect for Robert.The theme comes from the fourth of Schumann’s Op 99 Bunte Blätter—and is the same theme as Clara had chosen for her own set of Variations, Op 20, composed the previous year. But it is Robert who chiefly presides over Brahms’s work: there are stylistic and textural reminiscences of several of his other works, and the variation techniques as such, based especially on the free melodic transformations of the theme or its bass in ‘fantasy’ style, show Brahms absorbing some of Schumann’s most personal innovations. (In the manuscript, though not as published, many of the individual variations are signed: the more lyrical ones 4,7,8,14 and 16 with ‘B’—for Brahms—and the faster, more ardent ones 5,6,9,12 and 13 with ‘Kr’—for ‘Johannes Kreisler Junior’, the romantic alter ego Brahms had invented for himself while still a teenager, after the protagonist of E T A Hoffmann’s novel Kater Murr. N.10 and 11 added later are entitled:’Rose and Heliotrope smelled sweet’(Similar to Schumann’s way of assigning the movements in Davidsbündlertänze to ‘Eusebius’ and ‘Florestan’.)
There was beauty and simplicity in the theme and first variation.The second variation showed a beautiful sense of shape and colour with its legato right hand and staccato left and the fourth variation with the gentle rocking rhythmic accompaniment that led to the outburst of the Allegro capriccioso.There were cascades of brilliance in the sixth variation and the subtle sumptuous beauty of the seventh and eighth.There was great agility in the ninth and an almost religious stillness to the ‘poco adagio’ tenth with its sumptuous accompaniment.Great technical agility in the twelfth and thirteenth before the sumptuous beauty of the fourteenth with its beautiful melodic line suspended above a staccato accompaniment.There was magic in the air as the etherial beauty of the fifteenth variation gave way to the desolation of the final sixteenth.
This was just a preparation for the sumptuous beauty and passionate commitment of the ‘Davidsbundler’.Schumann’s early piano works were influenced by his relationship with Clara Wieck. On September 5, 1839, Schumann wrote to his former professor: “She was practically my sole motivation for writing the Davidsbündlertänze, the Concerto, the Sonata and the Novellettes.” They are an expression of his passionate love, anxieties, longings, visions, dreams and fantasies.From the subtle passionate syncopation of the opening to the sublime musings of the second piece played with such clarity of line and heart melting beauty- Eusebius indeed had entered before being knocked of his pedestal by the rumbustuous Floristan.There was disarming simplicity with the fifth ‘Einfach’ before the rollicking moto perpetuo of the sixth.Extraordinary beauty of the seventh where time seemed to stand still before the rhythmic drive of the following three movements ending in the epic Balladenmassig played with passionate ardour.The gentle shadowed lyricism of the eleventh was followed by the whimsical twelfth thrown of with nonchalant ease.Passion and fire ignited the thirteenth with the wonderfully lyrical middle section that seems to arise above the turbulant waves with a coda that was thrown off with the ease of the great pianists of another age.The fourteenth is one of Schumann’s most sublime creations and it was played with a golden sound of heart rending simplicity.There was great sweep to the fifteenth with its passionate outpouring of melody and the entry of a brief lighthearted play on rhythm ‘mit gutem Humor’.The sixteenth is an epilogue with magical apparitions of past memories.Very similar in atmosphere to the epilogue of Ravel’s Valses Nobles.
It built up to an exhilarating climax only to die away to the whispered simplicity of a waltz of such nostalgia and beauty that is no longer as time has passed.The entire penultimate piece is played ‘as if from afar’, lending the music a patina of nostalgia. None of this, however, prevented Schumann from adding his C major postscript—a gentle waltz whose simplicity is infinitely affecting. As it draws towards its close, the music begins to fade away with the chimes of midnight sounding deep in the bass. The inscription Schumann placed at the head of this piece in the original edition tells its own story: ‘Quite superfluously Eusebius added the following; but in so doing, much happiness radiated from his eyes.The first edition is also preceded by the following epigraph that sums up so poignantly the magical atmosphere of this masterpiece: Old saying
In each and every age
joy and sorrow are mingled:
Remain pious in joy,
and be ready for sorrow with courage.
A wonderful tribute to a remarkable lady from a master pianist formed and shaped by her and demonstrating her great legacy of integrity,intelligence and humility in her approach to the classical repertoire.Something that with her unique northern directness and simplicity she promoted with untiring energy and passionate enthusiasm.