Online Concert: Tom Borrow @ Wigmore Hall – J.S. Bach, Franck & Rachmaninoff

Tom Borrow (piano)

J.S. Bach Italian Concerto in F major BWV971 (pub. 1735)
Franck Prélude, choral et fugue (1884)
Rachmaninoff Variations on a theme of Corelli Op.42 (1931)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 1 May 2023 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

This BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert featured the New Generation pianist Tom Borrow, making his debut at the Wigmore Hall with a very well-judged trio of works casting their eyes back to the past. The Israeli-born performer was notably comfortable in the environment, responding to the intimate atmosphere of the hall with compelling music-making.

Bach’s Italian Concerto was first, a work that is particularly successful on the piano. Borrow’s articulation in a crisp Allegro was very pleasing to the ear, his enjoyment of the counterpoint evident. The Andante was particularly beautiful, and completely unhurried – the pianist not afraid to give the right hand plenty of room to expand Bach’s melodies, the left hand hushed but responsive too. The bustling Presto had plenty of musical activity, the energetic profile maintained throughout but again the shapely melodic phrasing winning through.

Franck’s Prélude, choral et fugue is the best known of his works for solo piano. Its form looks back to the organ works of Bach, inserting a ‘chorale’ section in between the more conventional pair of ‘prelude’ and ‘fugue’. Here the Prélude began softly, Borrow’s light touch bringing delicacy to the decorative arpeggios around the theme, while also bringing the parallels with Brahms into focus. The choral started softy but grew in stature, moving from darkness to bright light, Borrow crossing hands to play the theme with apparent ease. The flowing discourse here was notable, maybe not as loud as some pianists but finding the heart of Franck’s expression nonetheless. The fugue was stately but also mysterious to begin with, the pianist bringing forward its chromatic profile, but then taking full command of the intense exchanges and achieving a most impressive performance in the process. The closing peal of bells was brilliantly played.

Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a theme of Corelli completed the trio of retrospective works, this one another remarkably concentrated piece offering plenty of opportunity for virtuosity and interpretative skill. This was again taken up by Borrow, once again setting a reverent atmosphere with the slow exposition of the theme. The lilting second variation in triple time was persuasively delivered, while a commanding fifth variation and sweeping seventh carried all before them. This only heightened the mysterious eighth and ninth variations, lost in thought.

The dynamic contrasts of the twelfth variation were very well observed, then the anxious syncopations of the thirteenth. The following Intermezzo had the requisite elements of fantasy, followed by a yearning chorale for Variation 14. Borrow’s technical command was impressive throughout, notably in the twists and turns of Variation 16 and the jagged edges of the eighteenth variation onwards. The clarity here was notable, in spite of the volume – and the thunderous finish was complemented by a radiant coda.

Borrow’s encore choice was well-suited – a flowing account of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G# minor Op.32/12, with notes that twinkled in the upper right hand at the end.

For more livestreamed concerts from the Wigmore Hall, click here

Preview – Hastings International Piano Competition: Prize Winners’ Gala Concert

If you live in London or the south of England and love the piano, then consider this: Did you know there is a fully-fledged, international piano competition right on your doorstep?

It is, of course, the Hastings International Piano Competition, hosting their Prize Winners’ Gala Concert at the White Rock Theatre in the town this Saturday 4 March. Performing at the concert, and accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Rory Macdonald, will be two of the stars of last year’s competition. The winner, Japanese pianist Shunta Morimoto (above), will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4, while third-placed Mariamna Sherling (below) will close the concert with Rachmaninov’s much-loved Rhapsody On A Theme of Paganini.

“It is a great honour for me to perform again on the historical stage of the White  Rock Theatre”, said Sherling. “The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is absolutely incredible!  I was lucky to perform with this outstanding orchestra a year ago in the final of the Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition.  I can’t wait to collaborate with them again.”

Shunta, meanwhile, is similarly excited for his performance of the Beethoven. “It will be my greatest delight to bring to my performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra all the beauties I have uncovered studying the 4th concerto of Beethoven. It will be my honour to share this with the public of my most beloved city in England.”

The Hastings International Piano Competition is under the authoritative guidance of Paul Hughes who moved to the role from his previous post as Director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The competition itself has its roots in the Hastings Music Festival, which dates all the way back to 1908 – and it evolved from the festival, growing at a startling rate. Last year’s competition, says Hughes, was its best yet. “Yes, very much so. We had a record number of applicants – 360 – and a truly international field.”

Morimoto’s winning concerto in the 2022 competition, says Hughes, “demonstrated his extraordinary musicality and the maturity of his playing, as well as meeting all the technical demands of that particular work. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4 has parallels in that it requires a deep understanding of the music, exceptional phrasing and an appreciation of the architecture of the concerto; all qualities that Shunta has in abundance.”

The concerto will begin with Dvořák‘s effervescent Carnival Overture, while Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture opens the second half – a prelude to Sherling’s Rachmaninov. “Mariamna (above) is the possessor of a fabulous technique, a razor-sharp mind and a sense of fun”, says Hughes. “I am expecting she will employ all of this to demonstrate many facets of Rachmaninov’s set of variations.”

Hastings has a reputation of being ‘The Friendly Competition’, which Hughes attributes to “a combination of the efficient organisation of HIPCC combined with the warmth of the community whose hospitality in looking after and supporting the young pianists at every stage of their progress through the competition makes such a difference. It is also the friendliness and openness of the jury who share insights and give constructive feedback to the competitors.”  

Following the contestants after the competition has finished is imperative. “That is an important part of the Hastings International Piano experience”, he stresses. “We follow, support and offer performance opportunities to our pianists, and not just the finalists.” When choosing the winners, he says that “formally we don’t discuss the artists as a group of jurors.  The range of experience within the jury means we are all looking for different aspects of a performance, and make our selections individually.”

Hughes (above) considers the future of the competition to be rosy. “Professor Vanessa Latarche was President of the jury in 2022 and fulfilled that role magnificently.  She is now Artistic Director of Hastings International Piano and so I am confident we will attract an even wider range of pianists from across the world. One of the elements of the competition that distinguishes it from many others is that it focuses predominantly on the piano concerto; to that end we have conductor Rory Macdonald returning to conduct not just the finals,  but also the semi-final round.   One further innovation new to the Hastings competition is that we are commissioning a new piano solo work that each competitor will be required to perform in their solo recital round.”

These exciting developments are a natural progression from Paul’s previous role with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. “In my role there I have worked with and presented very many pianists, from early career new generation artists to the most distinguished pianists working today.    I have commissioned new work for them, supported and developed long term relationships with these amazing artists and fostered a sense of loyalty that I believe is so important in our profession. I am calling on all those experiences in Hastings to create a platform where we can discover, support and nurture young pianists and engage the Hastings community in the wonderfully exciting journey of a young pianist from competition to the very top of the profession.”

You can book tickets for The Hastings International Piano Competition Prize Winners’ Gala Concert by clicking on the link. Meanwhile the Piano Concerto Competition will return in February-March 2024 – with updates appearing on the competition website

In Concert – Steven Osborne plays Debussy Études @ Wigmore Hall

Steven Osborne (piano)

Études Book 1 (1915)
Berceuse héroïque (1914)
Étude retrouvée (1915)
Études Book 2 (1915)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 6 December 2022 (BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photo (c) Ben Ealovega

Steven Osborne is in a ‘Debussy phase’. The renowned pianist has recently released an album of Early and late piano pieces for Hyperion, and commendably this concert added a further string to his bow with a collection of late works, principally the two books of Études. These substantial collections represented the end of a year of compositional famine for Debussy, his creativity reignited for the piano and as he began his late trio of published sonatas. Blighted by illness, he nonetheless found the focus to write increasingly economical but outwardly expressive music.

Typically Debussy did not write these pieces as downtrodden exercises for the classroom. Instead, as a recent biography by Stephen Walsh point out, he wrote ‘tests of the pianist’s ability to climb technical mountains while engaging with the musical scenery’. Osborne certainly achieved both objectives in this BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert. His technical control was well-nigh flawless but at times daring, pushing these pieces to the limit while remaining sensitive to the natural phrasing of the cells of melody with which Debussy works.

He executed each piece with a compelling characterisation, allowing us to admire Debussy’s craft and texture but also creating remarkable images in spite of the discipline required within each study. Each of the two books of Études contains six pieces, and Osborne began with Book 1 in its entirety. The restless Pour les ‘cinq doigts’ (d’après Monsieur Czerny) began, immediately showing off the pianist’s control and natural affinity with Debussy’s melodic writing. Ending with a flourish, he moved to a picturesque Pour les tierces, portraying in aural terms the equivalent of focussing in on a particular part of a fast flowing stream. Pour les quartes moves the musical language in an Eastern direction, moving between evocative scenes, while Osborne enjoyed linking the character episodes of Pour les sixtes with fearsome playing. Pour les octaves was notable for its clarity and power, while the final Pour les huit doigts hurried forward, changing shape continuously like the centre of a lava lamp.

Book 2 was similarly impressive. The right hand in Pour les degrés chromatiques was like a strong wind, with room retained for its recurring melody, while the open textures of Pour les agréments reminded us just how forward looking these pieces are, Osborne giving the music plenty of room for expression. The circus was memorably evoked in the chase sequences of Pour les notes répétées, before Pour les sonorités opposes became a compelling study in musical perspective, its happenings near and far giving an exquisite sense of distance. The rippling figures of Pour les arpèges composes contrasted with trippy, playful syncopations, before finally we heard contrasts between the assertive and the deeply mysterious in a fully voiced account of Pour les accords.

Between Books 1 and 2 of the Études, Osborne found time for two more late pieces, beginning with the curious Berceuse héroïque, where a solemn left-hand figure grew into an imposing presence, then following with the Étude retrouvée from a year later. Here the suggestive chromatic intervals were persuasive, complemented by a ticklish figure in the right hand.

Completing this memorable concert was an encore of the early Rêverie, written in 1890. By showing us how far the composer had advanced in his musical style, Osborne also illustrated the seeds that were there at the beginning, in a piece whose sustaining calm cast a spell on audience and pianist alike.

In Concert – Olli Mustonen plays Prokofiev Piano Sonatas Part 2 @ Wigmore Hall

Olli Mustonen (piano)

Piano Sonata no.5 in C major Op.28 (original version) (1923)
Piano Sonata no.8 in B flat major Op.84 (1939-44)
Piano Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.1 (1909)
Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor Op.28 (1917)
Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major Op.83 (1939-42)

Wigmore Hall, London
Tuesday 1 November 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The second part of Olli Mustonen’s journey through Prokofiev’s nine completed piano sonatas featured crucial roles for piano tuner and page turner. On the first night Mustonen had experienced problems with the upper register of his Steinway, which fell out of tune under duress as the Piano Sonata no.6 progressed. Tonight one was at hand to ensure temperament was consistent throughout, while the page turner deserves a special mention for his busy supporting role in the whirlwind passages of the Piano Sonata no.7.

The real star, though, was the music – as Mustonen has always been at pains to point out. He is a humble artist whose preparation was clearly meticulous, but one with an extraordinary range of dynamics and the ability to think quickly on his feet / fingers. Here the composer in him comes to the surface, his thoughts on stage often highly instinctive while offering unique insights into Prokofiev’s music.

The order of the sonatas on the second night was as logical as the first – with two more substantial works before the interval and three short sonatas after, two of those presnting their arguments in single-movement form. The Piano Sonata no.5 in C major was first, a work whose initial tempo marking Allegro tranquillo was at odds with the music itself. Certainly Mustonen set about his task with a uniquely probing intensity for the right hand line, becoming increasingly agitated as the music progressed. The Fifth, the only sonata to be written outside Russia, has an unmistakeably French flavour, its Parisian origins found in languorous bass lines and harmonies aligning themselves with the Les Six school. The third movement presented an enchanted sound world, presenting impish qualities but evading any attempt to pin down a definite mood.

The Piano Sonata no.8 is the largest of the nine sonatas, capping the wartime trilogy completed in the early 1940s. Mustonen started in a dreamy mood, but soon the thoughts meandered and the music became increasingly distracted. The powerful middle section was capped by a remarkably strong outburst of feeling, passions near to the surface. The slow movement had warm lyricism and cold sorrow in almost equal measure, while the finale’s capricious theme gave way to music of raw power, with fiendishly quick passagework in the right hand and some incredibly intricate workings under the bonnet. The spectre of war lies close to the surface of this work, and its percussive clout in the faster music gives it impressive power, yet the more measured melodies made the lasting impressions.

It was fascinating to hear Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.1, his Op.1, after the interval. While not his first work in order of composition, this is a piece looking back to peaks of ardent Russian romanticism as well as Chopin and Liszt. The rich harmonies were however topped by signs of the mature Prokofiev to come in the occasionally jagged rhythmic profile and some spicy dissonances, all of which Mustonen conveyed in an incident-packed 7 minutes.

The Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor, also a single-movement work, looks sideways at the sonatas of Scriabin. An awful lot happens in the course of its eight minutes, from the profile of a virtuoso tarantella to an emphatic signing off. Along the way there are distinctive melodic snippets, crisply developed, with harmonic barbs and clipped comments. Later in the sequence some bell-like sequences ring out, projecting easily to the back of the hall. Mustonen’s affection for this music was clear, the sharp-witted themes and peppery harmonies brilliantly realised.

The Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major was the logical next step, Mustonen delivering the three works with barely a pause in between. The shortest of the wartime trilogy, the Seventh is the most explicitly virtuosic, its driving rhythms making it something of a crowd pleaser. Mustonen took its outer movements at a blistering pace, the right hand somehow phrasing the quirky opening melody of the first so that it still made sense, before rolling out the barrel as the music tripped along. The real heart of the performance lay in the Andante caloroso, this curious marking of the second movement asking for warmth from the performer in what was by far the slowest music of the night. There is a deeply yearning centre to this movement, and Mustonen’s soulful interpretation felt just right. The finale could not have been more different, a hair-raising drive to the finish where the insistent three-note motif in bass octaves threatened to go right through the floor. The right hand had a breathtaking speed of transition, somehow coping with the aggressively fast tempo to drive the music kicking and screaming over the line.

Mustonen received a well-deserved standing ovation for his Herculean efforts, his incredible stamina powered by Prokofiev’s unique and instantly recognisable writing for the piano, and his commitment obvious from first note to last. As if to remind us of Prokofiev’s innocent and simple lyricism, he then gave an excerpt from the Music for Children Op.65 as an encore, capping a remarkable two days of music.

On Record – Orion Weiss: Arc 1: Granados, Janáček & Scriabin (First Hand Records)

Granados Goyescas Op.11 (1911)
Janáček In the Mists (1912)
Scriabin Piano Sonata no.9 in F major Op.68, ‘Black Mass’ (1913)

Orion Weiss (piano)

First Hand Records FHR127 [74’51”]
Producer David Frost; Engineer Silas Brown
Recorded 22-24 May 2014 at SUNY Purchase Performing Arts Center, New York

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records issues the first instalment of another planned trilogy (see also The Future is Female with Sarah Cahill), the Arc series being a traversal by Orion Weiss across a century of piano music with intermittent forays into conceptually related pieces by earlier composers.

What’s the music like?

Focussing on music from before the First World War, this first volume is dominated (at least in terms of length) by Goyescas – the cycle of piano evocations in which Granados both paid homage to the illustrious Spanish artist, while extending the potential for large-scale formal design associated primarily with Liszt. That the composer subsequently transformed this into a one-act opera says much for the original’s motivic interconnections, such as Weiss further emphasizes throughout an interpretation in which characterization and cohesion are as one.

The listener is guided from teasing melodic interplay in Flattery, via the (mostly) confiding intimacy of Conversation at the Window then encroaching fear of separation in Fandango by Candlelight and its pained experiencing in Laments, or The Maiden and the Nightingale. A tragic climax arrives in the ballade Love and Death; after which, Serenade of the Ghost offers an ironic epilogue. Weiss renders this methodical yet visceral sequence with no mean insight, drawing out that pathos seldom far beneath the surface of Granados’s mature music.

If the Spanish composer was realizing his vision despite – or even because of – his success as composer and performer, In the Mists finds Janáček combating those vicissitudes of personal and professional failure. Hence the tonally and expressively oblique nature of its initial three sections, such as Weiss articulates with notable emphasis on their volatile mood-swings and frequent welling-up of emotion. All of this is duly thrown into relief by the final Presto with its gradual yet, as here, inexorable tendency towards ultimate fragmentation and dissolution.

Much has been written over the past century about those occult and even satanic connotations of Scriabin’s Ninth Sonata, whose Black Mass subtitle was only added after the event and at the prompting of another. Once again, it is the harnessing of such fluid and increasingly violent expression to a formal follow-through as precise as it is fastidious which gives this music its uniqueness. Weiss ensures an audibly cumulative build-up that, in the closing stages, achieves a claustrophobic intensity which could be considered liberating or annihilating as one prefers.

Does it all work?

Yes. Although it is not hard to locate alternative recordings for each of these pieces of at least comparable value, their juxtaposition within this context makes for a programme absorbing in its overt contrasts yet satisfying in its overall cohesion. Whether or not Weiss has performed this in recital, the trajectory towards an even greater self-absorption and inward intensity feels as inescapable as the presentiments of world conflict which lie behind much of what is heard here. Future volumes will doubtless offer a changing perspective and maybe a ‘way forward’.

Is it recommended?

It is. The sound has a lucidity and detail ideal for piano music from this period, with Weiss’s annotations succinct but also pertinent to his interpretations. This series is a notable addition to his extensive discography, further information about which can be accessed at his website.


For further information on this release, head to the First Hand Records website, and for more information on Orion Weiss, head to his website