The quaint, attractive market town of Buckingham, situated in North Buckinghamshire, played host to a rather special performance held at the Radcliffe Centre earlier this week. The centre, formerly a splendid church, is attached to the University of Buckingham and has been tastefully refurbished and renovated, catering perfectly for recitals and lectures. The venue presents a popular concert series and is a flourishing arts and cultural centre.
I’ve written before on this blog about my love for the combination of words and music. I had the good fortune to perform Melodramas and Recitations for several years with the recently deceased raconteur John Amis, and regularly observed audiences favourable reactions as they became captivated by the sheer beauty, emotion and profundity this alliance provides.
The relationship between Frédéric Chopin and his lover George Sand is assiduously explored in this fascinating programme aptly entitled ‘Divine Fire’. Narrated and written by the celebrated actress Susan Porrett, the mellifluous prose transported us on a journey through Chopin’s turbulent existence, marking both his musical achievements and often chaotic personal life. Chopin, a shy, spiritual soul, who died at the untimely age of thirty-nine, spent nine years with the rebellious, feminist writer, Sand. This unlikely union, which from the outset was so full of promise, hope, romance and passion, slowly descended into misery, jealousy, despair, and ultimately with Chopin’s demise. Seemingly neither ever recovered from their final separation. A love story for the end of time. Moving, expressive and heart breaking, this searing chronicle was effectively punctuated by many of the composer’s well-known piano compositions, elegantly performed by pianist Viv McLean.
Viv presented a wide range of Chopin’s works opening with the small-scale yet poignant Prelude in A major Op. 28 No. 7; not an obvious choice, but it was played with precision, poise and colour. The Nocturne in E flat Op. 9 No. 2 and Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 45 were equally effective; restrained and contemplative yet devoid of any sentimentality. The interweaving of dialogue and piano music was beautifully judged with renditions of Chopin’s First and Third Ballades (Op. 23 and Op. 47), metamorphosing the reflective mood into an impassioned and dramatic aura.
Larger works such as the thrilling Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor Op. 39, ever popular Fantasie Impromptu in C sharp minor Op. 66 and Polonaise in C sharp minor Op. 26 No. 1 were juxtaposed with the Nocturne in C sharp minor Op. Posth. and the Mazurka in A minor Op 17 No. 4. Performed with consummate mastery, this Mazurka’s pervading improvisatory semblance exuded a trance-like quality. As one of Chopin’s later compositions, the chromatically adventurous Polonaise Fantasie in A flat major Op. 61 afforded a fitting conclusion, and complimented the utterly tragic and desolate narrative enthralling conveyed by Susan. The script cleverly integrated a mixture of the lover’s letters with accounts and descriptions from friends and relatives, allowing their personalities to permeate powerfully.
Chopin and Sand were indeed present at this concert, appearing as ethereal apparitions on a large screen placed high above the performers. Sands’ painting dominated at the beginning, her piercing dark brown eyes illuminating the tempestuous character beneath. Chopin’s ghostly haunted image, which featured in the second half, was of a man whose spirit had been totally crushed, thoroughly consumed with sadness. The evening was an intense tour de force fully demonstrating the irresistible charms of words and music.
You can find more information about ‘Divine Fire’ and other themed concerts here.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.