Cristian Sandrin at the National Liberal Club – A voyage of discovery of nobility and timeless beauty

The National Liberal Club in Whitehall

Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt, forerunners of the Romantic generation of composers nurtured a very intimate connection with the Italian lands, their people and music: Chopin’s fascination of the bel canto and the operas of Bellini, Liszt’s travels through the country and the creation of Années des Pélérinage. Conversely, we discover a later generation of Italian composers, Sgambati and Martucci, whose music is highly influenced by the works of Chopin and Liszt.

F. Liszt – Two Petrarch Sonnets from Années des Pélérinage: Italie

G. Sgambati: Notturno op. 31

G. Martucci: Notturno op. 70 no. 1

F. Chopin: Ballade no. 3 in A flat major op. 47

F. Chopin: Ballade no. 4 in F minor op. 52


F. Chopin: Piano Sonata in B minor op. 58

A voyage to Italy with Cristian Sandrin was full of the radiance and beauty that we associate with the ‘Museum of the World‘ to quote Rostropovich.
He brought an atmosphere of nobility and timeless beauty to a programme that included Liszt but also two rarely heard Italian composers Sgambati and Martucci.It was Chopin,though,who had never set foot in Italy although a great admirer of Belcanto ,that brought out the aristocratic nobility and refined good taste of Cristian that Chopin himself had revealed on his first appearances in the Salons of the aristocracy in Paris.
Chopin’s roots were always with the simple native folk of Poland that was his birthright,but his world was with the refined elegance and perfumed sensibility that was very much of pre revolution Paris.
Années de Pélerinage were not for him and in fact his unfortunate encounters and meanderings with well meaning but assertive and insensitive lady admirers left him shocked and aghast and hastened his delicate consumtive frame to renounce his worldly existence. His first appearances had been greeted by Schumann with ‘Hats off a genius’ and there was no rivalry with Liszt who bowed to the poetic genius of this young Pole.

Liszt was happy to spar with lesser mortals that tried to encroach on his throne.The famous duel between Thalberg and Liszt is well documented as they fought it out in the salon of Princess Belgioso.Thalberg might be a great virtuoso but Liszt was always unique!

It was a similar duel that was to face Rubinstein when his position in Paris was compromised by the arrival of the young Horowitz.He was greeted by Rubinstein’s friends and the Parisian critics as ‘the greatest pianist alive or dead!’
Liszt,of course relished the adventures as one of the greatest showmen the world has ever known and his years of travelling around Italy and Switzerland with noble lady friends are well documented.
It was with two of Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets n.104 and 123 that Cristian opened the journey he had promised us in his first season of concerts for the Kettner Concert Society.

Hannah-Elizabeth Teoh co artistic director of the Kettner concert Society

He and Hannah Elizabeth Teoh have taken over the reins of this illustrious music society,guest of the NLC for over forty years,and have brought to it their youthful enthusiasm and artistry together with an enthusiastic following of music lovers.

Full house of enthusiastic music lovers for the New Kettner Concert Series

In the hallowed splendour of the National Liberal Club on their superb Steinway D concert grand Cristian proceeded to ravish and seduce us with refined sounds of timeless beauty.He brought such subtle phrasing and a sense of architectural shape to these tone poems where Liszt had put aside his phenomenal virtuosity and had instead revealed the very soul hidden in Petrarch’s sonnets with refined good taste and sumptuous poetry.Cristian understood this as he enticed us into this intimate sound world with subtle colouring and an overall sense of shape that even the most passionate outpourings were a consequence of poetic meaning and significance and never just scintillating displays for effect.I have heard Cristian many times but today even from these very first notes he revealed a maturity and poetic understanding where the music seemingly is allowed to speak for itself.There was time taken without any thought of paying it back!As Chopin himself described to his aristocratic pupils ,tempo should be flexible like the wind in the trees but with roots that are always firmly planted in the ground.Many young musicians feel that have to ‘do’ things to the music rather than allow the expression to come from within the note not superficially placed on top!Cristian has always been a good musician inherited from his distinguished pianist father Sandu Sandrin and later from his superb training at the Royal Academy in London.He is now benefitting from the guidance and mentorship of that great English musician Imogen Cooper.It was his colleague and mentor that he invited to play a few months ago when this great beast was illuminated with superb performances of two of Beethoven’s last Sonatas.Beauty and the beast were united as they ignited their audience as he did today in his opening season for the Kettner Concert Society.

Born in Rome, to an Italian father and an English mother, Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914), received his early education at Trevi, in Umbria. In his early twenties he met Franz Liszt in Rome, where the great composer resided for a period each year from 1861. The young man immediately became his favourite pupil, a faithful interpreter of his compositions and a precious collaborator for the mission that warmed both their hearts: to spread classical music in the Roman society of the time. Liszt’s Roman school was based in Sgambati’s home, where the master trained the best pianists of the time. Sgambati was the first to conduct his Dante Symphony, as well as Beethoven’s Third Symphony. Liszt took him with him on his travels and introduced him to Richard Wagner, who deeply admired his compositions. His fame grew rapidly, leading him to give concerts all over Europe and in Russia. He received invitations and signs of esteem from the most important musicians of his time: in addition to Liszt and Wagner, he was friends with Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Massenet and Busoni.He is remembered today only for his Melodie, a transcription of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice.There is a famous recording of Rachmaninov playing it and it was a favourite encore piece for the late Nelson Freire.

A beautiful Nocturne by Sgambati revealed a subtle sense of colour from a composer remembered only for his famous transcriptions of Gluck’s Orfeo.Cristian with his refined palette of subtle sounds revealed a work of great beauty and simplicity from a composer who had something important to say.There is a vast amount of music in the musty archives in Italy to be explored and revealed to a public with a thirst for new music from this Golden period of the piano-virtuosi of the past.Mark Viner and Tyler Hay are tireless promoters of this forgotten age and I am glad to see Cristian seeking out long forgotten gems to bring before his audiences gently adding but not overloading his profound study of recognised masterworks.

Giuseppe Martucci – 6 January 1856, in Capua – 1 June 1909, in Naples was sometimes called “the Italian Brahms” Martucci’s career as an international pianist started with a tour through Germany, France and England in 1875, at the age of 19.He was appointed piano professor at the Naples Conservatory in 1880,and moved to Bologna Conservatory in 1886.In 1902 he returned for the last time to Naples, as director of the Royal Conservatory of Music.It was in 1881 that Martucci made his first conducting appearance. One of the earliest Italian musicians to admire Wagner, Martucci introduced some of Wagner’s output to Italy. He led, for example, the first Italian performance of Tristan in 1888 Martucci began as a composer at the age of 16, with short piano works. He wrote no operas ,which was unusual among Italian composers of his generation, but instead concentrated on instrumental music and songs, producing also an Oratorio Samuel.
He was championed by Toscanini during much of the latter’s career. The NBC Symphony Orchestra performed a number of Martucci’s orchestral works in 1938, 1940, 1941, 1946, and 1953; although the performances were recorded none was approved for commercial release by Toscanini.

Martucci is a very highly esteemed composer for piano teachers in Italy and I remember being very impressed by a Fantasia in G minor op 51 (1880) when I gave classes to Italian piano students in Martina Franca many years ago.A Mendelssohnian type of writing of great effect but in the end lacking genial melodic invention.An exhilarating facility of great effect and music enjoyed by the young pianists at their first moments of being able to master the piano.The Nocturne in G flat op 70 n. 1 is a later work from 1891 and was very interesting to hear but was not as ravishingly beautiful as Sgambati and was for my taste,on first hearing,a little too verbose.These were interesting stops of a voyage that Cristian had chosen to share with us today.It was however the two Ballades and the B minor Sonata by Chopin where Cristian revealed to us his mastery ,creating a spell over an audience immediately overwhelmed by the beauty and authority of his performances.Perhaps it was because this concert signalled the end of an exhausting work load that Cristian had undertaken in the past days with a duo concert in Stockholm only the day before .Today at last he was able to take more time and allow the music to unfold leisurely as though he too was discovering and enjoying the beauty that was pouring so naturally from his hands.

There was also passion and drive when called for as with the coda of the Fourth Ballade or the Finale of the B minor Sonata but with a control and sense of line.Like Rubinstein ,in his later years,who could illuminate a wondrous musical journey with such simplicity but where injections of energy were like electric shocks that left us ,like today,overwhelmed because so unexpected.

The end of the third Ballade

There was a pastoral beauty to the third Ballade where the fluidity of his playing was so natural and with such sophisticated calm that Cristian’s poetic programme notes actually described in words what he could was depicting with such mastery in music.’The opening theme blooming like a flower from a single E flat revealing the emotional essence and the sensuality of what follows’.’could it be the mortal man uttering an invocation,calling out the water spirit?’’One can detect streams of water in this music with ripples produced by falling pebbles…..the music leads to triumphal waves seeping up and down the keyboard that is perhaps after the feelings of persistent uncertainty,a jubilant representation of reciprocated love’.These words remind me of Alfred Cortot and I remember Vlado Perlemuter writing Cortot’s words in my score of the Fourth Ballade ,at the recapitulation of the introduction,’Avec un sentiment de regret’.A poet can say so much with so little ( I remember Arnold Wesker writing to me after my wife had died on stage -‘They never forget you’ – it meant so much with so little)

Frédéric Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, Op. 52. Autograph manuscript, 1842, Bodleian Library,Oxford

The Fourth Ballade is one of the pinnacles of the Romantic piano repertoire.Together with the Liszt Sonata and the Schumann Fantasie they are the pianistic equivalent of the Bach B minor Mass or Beethoven’s Missa solemnis – Michelangelo’s David or Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa .Works that make one marvel at what man is really capable of !!In Cristian’s own words :’all the transformations of the themes reveal in their climax the architectural mastery of the medieval cathedral builder and their solitary yet singular towering spires’.Supposedly inspired by Mickiewicz’s poem the Three Budrys I find it hard to believe in a work where music speaks much more powerfully than words.The music just flowed from Cristians fingers helped by the beauty of the piano in a chain of notes that were entwined in a poetic outpouring of ravishing sounds.Even the notorious coda we were not aware of the transcendental difficulties as there was a musical line that was so engaging and poignantly eloquent played with a driving intensity and passion that was breathtaking as it was unexpected.

Chopin B minor Sonata recapitulation in Chopin’s own hand

The B minor Sonata was indeed ‘maestoso’ and I was glad that he decided to do the repeat that gave such architectural shape to the first movement.The final glorious outpouring of the second subject was played as Chopin clearly marks,but is so often ignored,instead of a sickly nocturne a noble outpouring of aristocratic sentiment.There was some beautiful shading to the jeux perlé Scherzo which evolved so naturally from the contrasting nobility of the central mellifluous episode.

The opening of the Largo third movement of the B minor Sonata

The final exciting chords of the Scherzo leading straight into the declamatory chords that herald the Largo as Chopin had so clearly indicated .It made the appearance of the long Belcanto melody so much more poignant as it floated on a barcarolle of a gently modulated moving accompaniment.The end of the Largo too was linked to the Finale with the opening octave flourishes entering so gradually into the ever more hypnotically exciting Rondo.

With Mary Orr ,on the left ,who is launching a new venue for talented young musicians on behalf of the Matthiessen Foundation .Yisha Xue ,centre,of the Liberal Club and c/o organiser of the new concert series for the Keyboard Charitable Trust with the Robert Turnbull Piano Foundation ,starting in this hallowed hall on the 5th June

An exhilarating evening of real discovery for both the audience and this young poet not only on the keyboard but also in life.The life of an artist is not easy but it is certainly rewarding as were were all aware of today on Cristian’s shared journey
Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration at the National Liberal Club.
September 2022
Mary Orr an indefatigable supporter of young artists
The third Ballade in Chopin’s own hand

Chopin Four Ballades were composed between 1831 and 1842. The term ballade was used by Chopin in the sense of a balletic interlude or dance-piece, equivalent to the old Italian ballata, but the term may also have connotations of the medieval heroic ballad, a narrative minstrel-song, often of a fantastical character. There are dramatic and dance-like elements in Chopin’s use of the genre, and he may be said to be a pioneer of the ballade as an abstract musical form. The four ballades are said to have been inspired by a friend of Chopin’s, poet Adam Mickiewicz .The exact inspiration for each individual ballade, however, is unclear and disputed.John Ogdon said of the fourth Ballade that it is ‘the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions… It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.Alfred Cortot claims that the inspiration for this ballade is Mickiewicz’s poem The Three Budrys, which tells of three brothers sent away by their father to seek treasures, and the story of their return with three Polish brides.It is commonly considered one of Chopin’s masterpieces, and one of the masterpieces of 19th-century piano music.

A letter by Mascagni given to me by Licia Mancini a pupil of Guido Agosti that was in turn given to her by Sgambati’s son.It says how sorry Mascagni was with such a brief stop in Rome not to have been able to thank Sgambati for the support he gave that allowed Cavalleria Rusticana to win the prestigious Sonsogno Competition in 1889


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