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Review: Ashley Fripp brings brilliance - and some devilry - to his St Peter's Church recital

Ashley FrippAshley FrippThe penultimate recital of the Fourth Series of ‘Brilliant Young Musicians in Saint Peter’s Church’ saw a welcome return visit by Ashley Fripp. He first played in Saint Peter’s church in September 2012 - in the first series of these recitals.  

Ashley studied at the Purcell School and has recently graduated with distinction from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where he was awarded the Premium Prix and the Lord Mayor’s Prize.  He has played in most of the great concert halls in Europe as well as the Carnegie Hall in New York, and, as a ‘rising star’, he has received many awards, as well as winning third prize in the Leeds International Piano Competition.

A very enthusiastic and appreciative audience was proud to welcome him back to Saint Peter’s.

His recital opened with JS Bach’s Second English Suite in A Minor.  The suites of dances are known as ‘English’ possibly because they were commissioned by an English patron, but that is not certain. English dances, they certainly are not.  

An amazingly precocious prelude introduces the dances which begin with a stately and courtly allemande, courante, and a sarabande before finishing with three much more bucolic peasant dances, two bourees (a dance from the Auvergne) and a gigue, which possibly did originate in Britain.

Ashley’s mastery of the Bach counterpoint was magnificent while in the first of the bourees he highlighted the hints of a bagpipe and then captured the whirling energy of the gigue.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit was in complete contrast. These three dark and mysterious works were inspired by poems written in the 1820’s by Aloysius Bertrand. ‘Gaspard’ is a sinister figure, the name being derived from the Persian  meaning  ‘ treasurer’, or ‘keeper’ of dark things. May be Gaspard is the Devil himself. They are ‘Gothick’ tales very much in the style of Mary Shelley.

Ondine is the beautiful water sprite who leads the captivated to the dark and cold waters of the lake. The seductress is portrayed in shimmering chords and rippling arpeggios.  Le Gibet, the most macabre of the three poems, portrays a gallows silhouetted against a flaming sunset, the cadaver helplessly  swinging in the evening breeze. The mournful tolling bell from the city nearby, a single monotonously repeated B flat, helps create the ghastly image described in the poem.  

The third piece, Scarbo, describes the night-time mischief of a goblin, who appears, then disappears, scratches the wall, leapfrogs round the room before finally disappearing. Perhaps it is the malignant Scarbo who is the Devil himself.    

Ravel brilliantly portrays the macabre horror of these three pieces. Not only were they brilliantly played, but Ashley read each of the poems before playing the appropriate piece. What a difference that made to the audience’s understanding of the work.      

The second half of the concert was given over to works by Franz Liszt. Ashley began with Les jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este.  On his visit to Italy Liszt had seen the glittering fountains in the garden of the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, and this work dramatically evokes both the sound and sight of these fountains.  Technically very challenging, Ashley’s mastery of the glittering arpeggios and shimmering chords captured the light reflecting off the cascading water on a summer’s day.

This was followed by the Sonata in B Minor. Completed in 1853 it remains a tour de force for any pianist.  Although it is written in sonata form, the movements do relate one to the other, so it seems to be one continuous movement.  It is full of darkness and light...good and evil.

The work begins with a foreboding descending scale, and the movement is punctuated  by a repeating phrase which sounds like a satirical laugh, perhaps the Devil himself. All the darkness is dispelled in a glorious theme, like an expansive burst of sunshine which Ashley played with sheer joy.

The second movement has a gentle and reflective chorale-like theme of blissful eloquence played with such lyrical delicacy. The final movement, an allegro, begins with a furious fugue based on the laughter theme, to which all the previous themes return in a virtuosic and manic recapitulation which had Ashley bouncing up and down on his stool.

Finally the work dissolves into a gentle benediction, the diabolical laughter theme growling away, subdued by the forces of good. What a conclusion:  the descending scale fading to a single staccato note, and then silence.  

The playing was superb, showing not only a technical mastery of Liszt’s demanding work, but also a mature understanding of the conflicting themes of darkness and light. It was indeed some of the finest playing we have heard in this church. Ashley amazed us all with his formidable memory and his seemingly effortless technique.  Please come again.

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