En passant: Yuja Wang… Jean-Guihen Queyras… La nuova musica…

Yuja Wang, Royal Festival Hall

The elfin Yuja Wang has now reached thirty, so must be judged by grown-up standards. A shame that she ducked out of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata originally billed for this RFH recital – there is no greater challenge – but the programme she chose, starting with Chopin’s Preludes, was challenge enough. The first emerged as a sonorous murmur, the second was lyrical and sorrowing, the third had bright clarity, the fourth an honest plainness, and the fifth was a muted whirligig.

Her touch had a silky smoothness, and each piece was exquisitely shaped. Some came like miniature dramas – most beautifully in the case of the ‘Raindrop’ and the suavely tranquil No 17, where her pianissimo evocation of a distant bell plus chanting choir offered a moment of ravishment.

Where Chopin called for virtuosity, she reminded us that no other pianist can marshal huge fistfuls of notes at hurtling speed with such insouciant confidence, but Chopin also calls for blood, on this occasion not a drop was spilt. Segueing from perfect piece to perfect piece, she seemed completely untouched by their emotions: like Prospero’s tempest, each storm here vanished leaving no trace on the still surface of the water. This show was smoke and mirrors, not flesh and blood.

Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel demand an epic delivery which dictates that they should not be taken too fast, but Yuja Wang’s immaculate account went like the wind: one had no sense of the requisite majestic muscularity, or of the intensely sweet pathos which is Brahms’s inimitable voice. No matter: for the encores she was back on home turf, dazzling with Prokofiev, beguiling with Schubert-Liszt and Rachmaninov, and perfuming the atmosphere with Scriabin. Standing ovation, of course.


Jean-Guihen Queyras and friends, Wigmore Hall

Zarb, dayereh, lyra, cello – you couldn’t get a more incongruous-seeming instrumental line-up on stage than the one Jean-Guihen Queyras and his friends Sokratis Sinopoulos, Bijam Cherirani and Keyvan Shemirani offered in the Wigmore’s latest foray into cross-cultural programming. The lyra is a tiny bowed lute with a penetratingly nasal sound which hails from Byzantine times and is native to Crete, and it’s in every way the absolute antithesis of the cello; the zarb goblet-drum and dayereh frame-drum are Iran’s staple percussion instruments. But Queyras and co are all dab hands at cross-cultural jamming, and did so here to brilliant effect.

Jean-Guihen Queyras (c) Benjamin Krieg

Jean-Guihen Queyras (c) Benjamin Krieg

The programme was chosen partly to show possible parallels between avant-garde European music and traditional music of the eastern Mediterranean, but there was less correspondence than might have been hoped: Lutoslawski, Kurtag and Stroppa remained obstinately separate and sealed off, when placed alongside improvisations in Greek, Turkish, and Iranian folk styles. But that didn’t matter: those improvisations were so beguiling and so gloriously freewheeling that one gladly sacrificed European expectations to savour to the full this feast of virtuosity. All these musicians are stars, but there was one extra star hovering unseen over the proceedinga: Ross Daly, Norfolk-born but self-exiled for life to Crete, where he has become the world authority on the lyra, and a prolific composer for it.


London Handel Festival, St George’s, Hanover Square

Presenting Handel’s music in a London church in which he himself used to sit, with singers backed by a band of a sort he had specified – the London Handel Society’s last concert in St George’s Church, Hanover Square, proved a delight. This time it was vocal duets by soprano Louise Alder and mezzo Emilie Renard with La Nuova Musica, under David Bates’s direction; also including a duet by Handel’s predecessor Agostino Steffani, this was for the most part rare stuff from the seemingly-inexhaustible treasure-house of forgotten Baroque music.

La Nuova Musica

La Nuova Musica (c) Michael Poehn

Opening with the overture to Judas Maccabeus, Bates and his ensemble – two violins, viola, cello, bass, theorbo, and bassoon – established a warm and gracefully-inflected sound. It seemed initially as though Alder’s bright and forceful soprano would obscure Renard’s delicately calibrated hues, but the balance of contrasts worked out very pleasingly. In the early duet Tanti strali the bursts of coloratura were elegantly tossed to and fro and then sung in sweet harmony; the melodious languor of Steffani’s Placidissime catene – ‘gentle chains’ – was eloquently reinforced by Jonathan Rees’s cello. The singers’ performance of Handel’s cantata Il duello amoroso became a comic dramatization of a stealthy but lethal emotional castration.


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