One of the joys of living in Windsor (UK) is the proximity to many excellent artistic events. There are concerts virtually every week at various churches in the town centre, as well as performances at the Windsor Theatre, recitals at Eton College, and the Windsor Festival runs during September every year. Evensong at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle is a treat, and I highly recommend the Sunday services; the choir is superb and there’s often an eclectic selection of music, too.
On Sunday I was invited to witness the unveiling of a new piano at Eton College. The school had recently acquired a Fazioli instrument, which was generously funded through a donation by Professor Christopher Liu OBE and his wife, Vivienne.
To ‘christen’ the new piano, and keep the flag flying for Italy, Italian concert pianist Federico Colli gave a master class followed by an early evening recital. Federico won first prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2012, and he continues to enjoy a flourishing career.
The new piano is housed in Eton School Hall (see photo above left), a large palatial building which was seemingly the perfect place to unleash the piano’s full power allowing it to resonate majestically.
The afternoon consisted of a two-hour master class, featuring three Eton College students. Organised and introduced by Head of Keyboard, Gareth Owen, Durness Mackay-Champion opened the proceedings with a fine performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in B Op. 32 No. 1. Colli had much to say about Chopin, particularly regarding sound and tone quality. Comparing Chopin to Liszt, he declared that whilst the latter composer wore his grief in a declamatory fashion, the former always wore it quietly ‘in his heart’. Therefore, the tonal quality must reflect this softer, more sorrowful demeanour. I appreciated the references to ‘spacing’ or leaving time to breathe between certain phrases, and there was also an effective demonstration on how to colour or ‘voice’ particular chords. Federico’s own control of the instrument was impressive, and he was able to produce a rich ‘ringing’ sound on single notes by merely stroking the keys using an upward wrist motion, which offered a searing yet open tone.
Lucas Zhang performed Schumann’s Abegg Variations Op. 1. Federico commented on tempo markings, pointing out that irrespective of the actual speed, a tempo marking should first and foremost reflect the character or mood. Vivace and Animato were used as examples, and Lucas was encouraged to feel the animated spirit of the music and aim to be less concerned with the speed. Colli demonstrated this beautifully, offering several disparate methods for achieving this goal, which Lucas certainly took on-board.
The master class closed with a convincing account of Des Abends and Aufschwung from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op. 12, given by John Gallant. Des Abends (‘In the Evening’) required a more muted, lighter touch, in keeping with context and meaning behind this piece. Again, there was ample demonstration, and John adjusted his touch, using a very smooth legato for an immediate result. Aufschwung (‘Soaring’ or ‘Upswing’) was played with gusto, and some invaluable advice was offered on slow practice, grouping notes in the middle section by playing them in ‘blocks’ or chunks, whilst employing different rhythmic accentuations. Once mastered, this allowed the top voice to sing clearly above a sotto voce semiquaver accompaniment figure.
An early evening concert provided a real opportunity to hear the piano in its full glory. There’s no doubt that these hand-crafted instruments are capable of infinite tonal possibilities. Federico Colli’s recital contained four Scarlatti sonatas, Beethoven’s Sonata in C sharp minor Op. 27 No. 2, closing with the magnificent Bach-Busoni Chaconne. The school hall was virtually full, with a mixture of students, parents and visiting instrumental teachers. It was heartening to see very young children in the audience, too.
Each work was given a distinct voice and it was clear that Colli (pictured above) has worked with these instruments for many years. What I enjoyed most of all was the tremendous dynamic ranges. From the softest pianissimos to grand fortissimos, one was aware of a magnitude of colours and vibrant bold lines, which facilitated intimately expressive phrases. After a rapturous applause, we were treated to an encore of Bach’s Cantata No. 147, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Such an instrument will be of considerable benefit to all those who study the piano at the school as well as to visiting performers, and this special event was a splendid way to celebrate the beginning of its musical life.
I interviewed Federico Colli five years ago at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London as part of my Classical Conversations Series, and you can watch our interview by clicking the link below.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.