Thomas Kelly The Golden Age of piano playing shines brightly at St Mary’s

Sunday 9 January 3.00 pm

Chopin: 4 Scherzi 

Op 20 in B Minor
Op 31 in B Flat Minor
Op 39 in C Sharp Minor
Op 54 in E Major

Scriabin: 2 Mazurkas Op 40

Balakirev: Toccata in C Sharp Minor

Glazunov/Blumenfeld: Concert Waltz Op 47 no 1

Some phenomenal playing from Thomas Kelly not only of transcendental piano playing but of sublime beauty.A fluidity of sound and sense of colour of another age.
Four Scherzi by Chopin where each one was given such character that they became four tone poems each with their own extraordinary sense of discovery and daring.
The same daring that he brought to two war horses of another era .The Balakirev Toccata was an astonishing perpetuum mobile of feather light sounds with an irresistible rhythmic drive .But it was the Glazunov Waltz in the transcendental arrangement of Blumenfeld – who was Horowitz’s first teacher before he left Russia – that was played with ravishing style and colour as I imagine only Horowitz could have played it .Thomas threw it off with the nonchalance and old world style that we have only heard from the great virtuosi of the past on piano rolls or the very early recordings of pianists like Rosenthal,Levitski,Lhevine or Moiseiwitch.And if we were reminded of Horowitz with this waltz we were certainly reminded also of Moiseiwitch’s historic recording of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo in the arrangement by his friend Rachmaninov.This was every bit as phenomenal and even more so for being a live performance and thrown off as an encore with the same ease and charm of sparkling jewels that Moiseiwitch threw off in desperation at the end of a recording session.
Two little Mazukas op 40 by Scriabin were slipped in like a sorbet between courses to whet the appetite for even more astonishing performances.
Here there was a teasing and beguiling sense of colour as the innermost counterpoints were allowed to glisten and gleem with such tantalising charm.

Unlike the classical model of the Scherzo the musical form adopted by Chopin is not characterised by humour or elements of surprise, but by highly charged “gestures of despair and demonic energy”.Schumann wrote about the first scherzo: “How is ‘gravity’ to clothe itself if ‘jest’ goes about in dark veils?”Although various Beethovenian features of the scherzo are preserved—an A–B–A structure with sections A and B contrasting, triple time, pronounced articulation and sforzando accents—in terms of musical depth, Chopin’s four scherzos enter into a different and grander realm. They are all marked presto or presto con fuoco and “expand immeasurably both the scale of the genre and its expressive range”. In these piano pieces, particular the first three, any initial feeling of levity or jocularity is replaced by “an almost demonic power and energy”.

In fact from the very first notes of Thomas’s performance there was an overwhelming rhythmic energy with his unique sense of colour and voicing that never allowed him to force the tone but only to make it richer and more vibrant.The great pianists of the past we’re masters of this like the master illusionists they were .Not the all too often : ‘I plays mainly by strength’ as the modern piano can withstand the cruellest of beatings but by highlighting certain elements one can give the illusion of making the piano roar and sing by a refined sense of balance and an acute sensibility to colour.There was too from Thomas scintillating passage work of transcendental control and passion.The beautiful middle section, based on an old Polish Christmas song (Lulajże Jezuniu) ,was played so poetically with an aristocratic sense of colouring where the perfect timing of a single note in the bass could add such colour and meaning to the beauty of the melodic line.The coda was played with astonishing excitement and virtuosity.There was great clarity with the opening triplets of the second Scherzo answered by the imposing majesty of the chordal declaration.It was though the beauty of the melodic line that was so moving as it was played with a fluidity and flexibility with a great sense of line and forward movement.There was such serene beauty too in the middle section which alternated with a Mazurka like rhythm that I had never been aware of previously.There was even Horowitian devilry in the climax that just dissolved to a mere whisper before the return to the beautiful opening melody,played again with a wondrous sense of balance that allowed the melodic line to sing with such fluidity.The astonishing excitement in the coda where the same way of lightening the octave texture at the very climax was reminiscent of Horowitz and allowed a driving ecstatic forward movement without any hardening of texture.

There was an unusually mysterious opening to the third Scherzo as it led into the dynamic octave outcry and the beauty of the chorale with its glistening cascades of embellishments.It was played though with an overall architectural line that shone through all the extraordinary embellishments where Chopin adds his unique magic to the simple grandeur of the chorale.The fourth Schero of a pastoral serenity but with its capricious fleeting interruptions.It was ,though,the great central song that was so ravishing etched in velvet as he dug into the melodic notes with such weight.There was such poignancy and beauty as it built up to the flights of jeux perlé notes that take us back to the opening motif. A coda that opens like a ray of light gleaming ever more radiantly as it explodes into the final octave grandeur before shooting off a a scintillating rocket of notes to the final sumptuous chords.

Alexander Scriabin wrote his two Mazurkas, catalogued as Op. 40, in 1903 and they were first published a year later. This was a prolific period for Scriabin writing many preludes, etudes and piano pieces. The first Mazurka, in D flat major is marked Allegro and shows a use of harmony typical of Scriabin played by Thomas with a teasing and beguiling sense of dance and extraordinary feeling for the layers of colour that are so much part of Scriabin’s fantasy.The second mazurka was beautifully mellifluous as it meandered to a merely whispered ending .

Mily Balakirev (1837–1910) – the leader of the group of Russian composers known as ‘the Five’ which included Mussorgsky,Cui,Borodin and Rimsky – Korsakov – who wrote of Balakirev ‘who had never had any systematic course in harmony and counterpoint and had not even superficially applied himself to them, evidently thought such studies quite unnecessary…. An excellent pianist, a superior sight reader of music, a splendid improvisor , endowed by nature with a sense of correct harmony and part-writing, he possessed a technique partly native and partly acquired through a vast musical erudition, with the help of an extraordinarily keen and retentive memory, which means so much in steering a critical course in musical literature. Then, too, he was a marvelous critic, especially a technical critic. He instantly felt every technical imperfection or error, he grasped a defect in form at once.’The toccata is a virtuoso work of infectious rhythmic energy a perpetuum mobile of technical brilliance played by Thomas with an alluring sense of style and of course amazing virtuosity.

The waltz by Glazunov in the transcription of Blumenfeld was an astonishing display of playing of another age – the Golden age of piano playing.It showed off to the full the amazing bravura and kaleidoscopic sense of colour as there was a seemless flow of effortless jeux perlé which every time it seemed to draw to a close erupted into an even more funabulistic display of transcendental piano playing.

The rhythmic drive and absolute charm of the Rachmaninov transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s ‘A midsummer night’s dream’ offered as an encore,just makes me repeat what I wrote last time I had listened to Thomas’s playing.He is the third element in a remarkable chain of pianists – all British to boot – who have returned to the Golden age of piano playing.Stephen Hough,Benjamin Grosvenor and now without a doubt,after today’s extraordinarily assured display ,Thomas Kelly.His recognition in Leeds was the spark that was needed to give him the authority and assurance that his artistry has for some time demanded.

Thomas Kelly was born in 1998. He passed Grade 8 with Distinction in 2006 and performed Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 in Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre two years later. After moving to Cheshire, he regularly played in festivals, winning prizes including in the Birmingham Festival, 3rd prize in Young Pianist of The North 2012, and 1st prize in the 2014 Warrington Competition for Young Musicians. Since 2015, Thomas has studied with Andrew Ball, initially at the Purcell School for Young Musicians and now at Royal College of Music, where he is a third-year undergraduate. Thomas has won first prizes including Pianale International Piano Competition 2017, Kharkiv Assemblies 2018, Lucca Virtuoso e Bel Canto festival 2018, RCM Joan Chissell Schumann competition 2019, Kendall Taylor Beethoven Competition 2019 and BPSE Intercollegiate Beethoven Competition 2019. He has also performed in venues including the Wigmore Hall, Cadogan Hall, Holy Trinity Sloane Square, St James’ Piccadilly, Oxford Town Hall, St Mary’s Perivale, St Paul’s Bedford, Poole Lighthouse Arts Centre, Stoller Hall, Paris Conservatoire, the StreingreaberHaus in Bayreuth, the Teatro del Sale in Florence, in Vilnius and Palanga. Thomas’ studies at RCM are generously supported by Pat Kendall-Taylor, Ms Daunt and Ms Stevenson and C. Bechstein pianos. He recently won 5th prize at the 2021 Leeds International Piano Competition, and was the first British pianist to reach the finals of this prestigious competition for 18 years.

Dr Mather writes :Phenomenal indeed. I was lost for superlatives ! Thank you as always, Christopher. Here is the link

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