Steph Power is at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival 2015 to review a performance by Robin Green and Antoine Françoise as the Françoise-Green Piano Duo.
Relatively few solo recitalists and chamber musicians of international calibre seem willing to do more than dip a toe into 20th century or contemporary music, despite the manifold riches to be found there. The commercial pressures to stick with an established, familiar canon are enormous – and the appetite to challenge that situation is, frankly, often lacking. So it was a pleasure to see the Vale of Glamorgan Festival 2015 present a brilliant young pianist with a real sense of adventure and genuine love of contemporary music as their first ever featured artist, alongside their customary featured composers.
The award-winning Robin Green – as it happens, currently based in Penarth – is saluted across Europe for his refreshingly diverse repertoire spanning the classical era to the present day. At the Vale of Glamorgan Festival this year, he threw himself delightedly into several challenges for three recitals in which he appeared respectively as chamber player, duettist and soloist. Learning to play the hurdy-gurdy for a performance of Dobrinka Tabakova’s Spinning a Yarn, alongside violinist Sara Trickey (at Dyffryn House, St Nicholas on May 14), was perhaps only the most obvious test; reportedly, he accomplished it with élan.
At Penarth Pier Pavilion two days later (May 16), Green appeared as half of the exceptional Françoise-Green Piano Duo. Formed in 2008 with the pianist Antoine Françoise, the Françoise-Green Duo are no strangers to contemporary music; indeed they initially came together to perform George Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening (1974) and have since been responsible for over fifty world premieres, of which there were three in today’s concert: from the Cardiff-connected Ben Lunn, Tom Green and Andrew Wallace.
The venue itself offered its own challenges in the various noises-off from the busy cafe, beeping sensor and weekenders strolling outside. However, nothing seemed to faze the Françoise-Green Duo in their exhilarating opening performance of John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction, written in 1998 for four hands playing two pianos. If anything, for a brief twenty minutes, the Duo transformed Penarth Pier into its own, vivid kind of truck-stop in echo of that No 49 on the Nevada-California border named in Adams’ title.
The piece, heard here in the round, with the two pianos nestled back to back, was both intimate and expansive; full of Adams’ trademark teeming collage of disparate elements, painted together into a generous, panoramic landscape. Across four sections, relaxed reflection met rapidly repeated interlocking rhythms, while broad melodies countered short, stabbing chords – all performed with wonderful precision and refinement.
Ten years after writing this piece, in 2008, Adams published an autobiography also entitled Hallelujah Junction, in which he describes his journey as a composer from ‘a land without feelings’ to a music rich in emotional expression. In a dry aside, he also notes of creative collaboration that, ‘next to double murder-suicide, it might be the most painful thing two people can do together.’ Well, if such pain forms part of the Françoise-Green Duo’s experience to date, it certainly wasn’t evident here.
In Ben Lunn’s new piece, The Horror and the Ecstacy, inspired by a chapter on Baudelaire in Bataille’s Literature and Evil, the care with which they balanced the simple, alternating sforzando low clusters and delicate, quiet upper figurations made for a strikingly effective piece. Likewise, Tom Green’s lyrical Between the Waves seemed literally to float above the water beneath the pier, propelled by the ripples emanating from his repeated tremolo Es.
Between these two premieres, Arvo Pärt’s short, minimalist Hymn to a Great City (1984) sounded curiously American in light of the Adams – and, indeed, it was initially associated with New York before Pärt first withdrew the work, then reissued it in 1999.
At the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, young and old composers are treated with equal respect, and next we heard one of Pärt’s most venerable peers, the passionate Romanian music educator, György Kurtág. With four hands now on one piano, this stunning Duo offered us three short pieces based on children’s games and the notion of music as ‘playing’ in all senses. Hommage á Sopani led to One More Voice from Far Away; both pieces from one of eight collections published under the title Játekak (Games) .
After a brief, lovely essay into jazz-tinged Astral Travel, courtesy of Andrew Wallace, the scene was set for a wilder kind of playfulness altogether, as the Françoise-Green Duo were joined by Patrick King and David Childs for some unbridled fun with Richard Ayres’s No. 35 (Overture) for piano duo, timpani and euphonium. Ayres’s music is not for the genteel. He delights in barmy sound effects (including here, thundersheet, brassy parps and heavy breathing through a megaphone), with unexpected stylistic juxtapositions in a world of noisy mayhem; imagine, if you will, a 13-legged horse race. Ahead of his Peter Pan UK premiere at Welsh National Opera that evening, it was a galloping end to a brilliantly-performed concert.
About the Frederic Rzewski that Robin Green performed the following week at St Illtud’s Church in Llantwit Major (May 23), I have to say, if you weren’t there, you missed one of the major treats of this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival – and, actually, of the entire piano repertoire. It is not for nothing that The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is often compared to Beethoven’s great Diabelli Variations. It is a magnificent work by a US pianist-composer whose utter genius is matched only by his modesty, and refusal to kow-tow to a world obsessed with personality and PR. Look him up online if you don’t know him. There you’ll find his music available for free, according to his wishes.
The piece was written in 1975, and comes from a time which saw many composers in the US and Europe angrily expressing radical politics through their music (oh, for new generations to more loudly do the same!). Rzewski takes a popular, pre-Pinochet Chilean protest song and submits it to 36, extraordinarily inventive variations, arranged in six groups of six, and symbolising the universal human struggle for freedom. A vast array of musical styles are employed, from the initial, simple statement of the tune, its cyclic iterations and return in seeming gentle anguish at the end. Rzewski ranges from delicate Chopin-esque melancholy and Debussian dreaming, to wittily defiant blues, Bach-inspired counterpoint, experimentalism (including whistling, vocalised grunting and improvisation) and great, bleeding chunks of Russian romantic passion – each style emanating with organic naturalness from a profoundly felt, deeper root.
Command of tone colour is not the key here, but is nevertheless vital within a pianism of great, sweeping grandeur, subtle touch and outright stamina. Robin Green rose wonderfully to the challenge, demonstrating a maturity of vision which belied his years and entirely merited the standing ovation he received.
Part of the trick is to take the piece deadly seriously – as indeed the pianist must in order to master its ferocious technical demands – and yet to perform it with apparent casualness: as if busking, perhaps, on a dusty street corner in coded call to revolution. Each variation has its own unique set of characteristics, and each must be firmly wedded, without rigidity or self-consciousness, to the structure as a whole; arising, as it were, both from the traditions which birthed the tune, and those which shaped the piano itself as an instrument.
It was wonderful to hear it played with such fresh vitality in the still beauty of St Illtud’s. Performing The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is a mighty undertaking, and Green is now set, with time and experience (and even better pianos), to expand further into its myriad subtleties. Watch out for performances elsewhere – and, hopefully, a recording – in the years to come.
Vale of Glamorgan Festival 2015
Françoise-Green Piano Duo
Antoine Françoise and Robin Green
with David Childs, euphonium and Patrick King, timpani
Penarth Pier Pavilion, May 16 2015
Robin Green, piano
St Illtud’s Church, Llantwit Major, May 23 2015
Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.