When I was a schoolboy many years ago I well remember the late night programmes on the BBC of the recently discovered piano rolls in Frank Holland’s piano museum in Brentford.Phenomenal performances from the Golden Age of piano playing.
Pianists that we had read about but never heard:Rosenthal,Lhevine,Godowsky,Levitski,Chaloff,Munz,Dohnanyi etc presented by Deryck Cooke. I waited anxiously every week to hear this unbelievably subtle display of virtuoso piano playing.
Shortly after, Raymond Lewenthal arrived on the scene with music of Alkan,another legendary pianist/composer, contemporary of Chopin and Liszt that we had only read about .This mysterious figure,killed when the Talmud fell on him , had written music of such difficulty that it was rumoured to be impossible to play.
Raymond Lewenthal appeared on the scene ,a romantic figure from a bygone age, with programmes of Liszt Hexameron and the Norma paraphrase together with pieces of hair raising difficulty by Alkan.There were queues all night at the Wigmore Hall to get a return for his sold out recitals.
Then came Ronald Smith with his performances and learned books on the legendary figure of Alkan.
In our time now Marc-Andre Hamelin is that pianist with the reserves of technique to play this repertoire .
The next in line waiting in the wings is Mark Viner there can be no doubt after the phenomenal display this afternoon in Hugh Mathers remarkable series in Ealing that he is ready to fly into the limelight to astonish the vast public that awaits him.
Place of honour always to Nina Walker the legendary repetiteur at Covent Garden who worked on the historic performances of Norma with Monserrat Caballe and Grace Bumbry.(I had actually been present at the first Festival of Valle D’Itria in Martina Franca where Grace Bumbry had come to sing Norma for the first time as she was about to alternate her usual role of Adalgisa with Norma .Of course in the end Monserrat refused to sing anything but the title role and the two divas fought it out bravely).
So Nina Walker certainly was able to appreciate the absolute rhythmic control and sheer sense of theatre and excitement in a superlative performance of the Reminiscences de Norma that I doubt has ever been bettered.
Never has this Bosendorfer piano sounded so grand with the magnificent bass allowing the middle and upper sections to glisten in the amazing pyrotechnics that Liszt requires of the performer.
Opening this remarkable concert with a piece completely unknown to me and I expect to most : A la Chapelle Sixtine S.461ii by Liszt.
Such amazing contrasts from the extreme virtuosity of the opening to the serene reference to Mozart Ave Verum .Beautifully projected cantabile playing combined with a virtuosity that took ones breath away.
Following with five of the Douze etudes dans tous les tons majeurs op 35 by Alkan .A real discovery.A cross between the original op 1 version of the Liszt transcendental studies and Chopin or Mendelssohn.Someone even suggested Mendelssohn in a drunken rage! Certainly pieces of hair raising difficulty but also with great character.From the ferocity of the Allegro barbaro to the refined cantabile of the Allegramente reminiscent of Chopin’s own op 10 n.10 study only technically much more difficult. There seemed even to be some scottish reference in one of them .It was fascinating to hear this whole new world open up in such a totally convincing manner by the winner of the first Alkan- Zimmerman International Piano Competition and not surprisingly President of the Alkan Society.
A total surprise considering this rather gentlemanly figure ( was not Jorge Bolet also out of character with the utmost romantic sounds he produced )of the British born and trained virtuoso.
Hats off to his two teachers Tessa Nicholson of the Purcell School and Niel Immelman at the Royal College of Music showing the results of the remarkable early training that our musicians can now count on.Something that was once only available in the Eastern countries or the USA but now through institutions such as the Purcell or Menuhin School our superlative young musicians receive the early training to allow them to compete on the world stage .