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MARTIN WIDDEN: ‘RED PILLING THE MUSIC INDUSTRY, ONE CONCERT AT A TIME’

Review: Kathryn Stott

It is often asserted that the sound of a violin improves in a period when it is being played quite intensively. And not only the violin – similar claims are made for other stringed instruments. Such claims are widely believed by musicians, but although careful scientific tests have been done to examine the truth of them, unfortunately no one has managed to prove that such improvements actually occur.

A piano is a very different case, because every piano is a complex mechanism, which could suffer if it is not given some exercise. The University’s Steinway concert grand, which sits silent in the corner of the Great Hall more than 99% of the time, could undoubtedly benefit from being played more.

The Steinway was given plenty of exercise at the recital given on 1 March by the pianist Kathryn Stott. The three Danzas Argentinas by Ginastera (1916-1983) are percussive and highly original compositions, written by Argentina’s foremost composer when he was aged only 20 – the pianist clearly enjoyed playing these exuberant pieces. Another test for both pianist and the Steinway was provided by Percy Grainger’s arrangement of the love-duet between Sophie and Octavian, from Der Rosenkavalier, by Richard Strauss. As the programme note said, Grainger particularly admired Strauss’s music for its ‘sumptuous vulgarity’: there is no way to perform this music without luxuriating in this, and Kathryn Stott did so.

To prepare the audience’s palate for these excesses, she opened each half of her concert with two arrangements of works by Bach, the Siciliano arranged by Wilhelm Kempff from the second lute sonata, and the cantata Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, arranged by Myra Hess. These pieces are very far from vulgar, and Kathryn Stott played them excellently, demonstrating both her own versatility and that of the piano.

The arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring had been played by Hess herself in London’s National Gallery on 10 October 1939 in the first of the long series of lunchtime recitals she curated every weekday without fail throughout the Second World War, and beyond – a total of almost 2000 concerts spanning a period of more than six years. She was supported in this by Kenneth Clark, the then Director of the Gallery, and was created DBE by King George VI for her contribution to maintaining the morale of the people of London during the War. Incidentally, those concerts were very informal. There was no advance booking, and audience members were free to walk in and out as they pleased between movements, or indeed to stroll around, lean against the walls, or sit on the floor. And why not?

Contributed by Martin Widden.