REVIEW: St Peter's Church recitals - pianist Jessica Zhu mixes modern preludes with Brahms' homage to Handel

Written by Christopher Rogers on .

This was a very welcome return visit from Jessica Zhu, who had played for a Marlborough audience in the 2013 series of recitals by Brilliant Young International Musicians at Saint Peter’s Church

The recital opened with Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine, written in 1905. It is a lovely gentle and plangent piece, in the wistful key of F minor.  Both outer movements make use of the same theme. In the first movement it is framed in rippling quavers, like a babbling brook but the third movement is more animated, hurtling relentlessly towards its conclusion. 

The middle movement is more serene, in the form of a stately minuet.  Jessica loves French music, and she felt thoroughly at home with this work, playing with great sensitivity and lightness; contrasting the sobriety of the middle movement with the filigree of the two outer movements.

She followed this with eight of the Preludes for Piano written in 1973 by the French composer Maurice  Ohana.  He was born in 1913,  began his musical career as a pianist and only came to composing later in life. 

These preludes are  hugely  varied in structure; some borrowing from both African and Asiatic musical influences. There are clear jazz-like rhythms in the last prelude, for example. These were technically extremely difficult and were played with great confidence and flair. 

Rather like other Modernist music, these preludes are outside the experience of listeners unfamiliar with twentieth century piano music and very difficult to absorb at the first sitting. However, the musical colours are amazing; dissonances and chord sequences punctuated with notes seemingly plucked randomly from the far reaches of the piano.   

We were amazed at Jessica’s technical skills, athletically plucking notes from both reaches of the piano, not  least the skill of  holding open the unruly pages of her score! 

The first half finished with a much more ‘identifiable’ Sonata No 2 by Serge Rachmaninoff, a work competed as late as 1931. It is a work more within the audience’s ‘listening zone’ that the preceding piece. 

It is quite some work and requires both skill and stamina, which we saw in plenty! It is an extended work, bound together with the theme from the first movement. 

The opening movement is a huge cascade of arpeggios rolling the full length of the keyboard, which at times sound like pealing bells. There are more peaceful moments often incorporating rich harmonic chords in the bass before dying away to a gentle wistful conclusion. 

The middle movement is very gentle and lyrical. The theme is embellished at one point with ‘raindrops’, while at another point repeated falling thirds sound like a cuckoo. 

The last movement is titanic. The opening section bursting into a glorious triumphant theme, while a second and gentle theme brings a touch of sublimity to the work. A furious coda unites all the various themes into one technical extravaganza before dying away ever deeper, in typical Russian orthodox manner. 

This was a tour de force from Jessica, whose playing truly reflected the diversity of moods in this piece 

The second half of the programme was devoted to one work, Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel which the young Johannes Brahms composed in 1861. It was a birthday gift to Clara Schumann who may have been the first person to have played it. 

The highly ornamented theme (originally from a Handel harpsichord concerto) is followed by 25 variations, of roughly equal length.  They are very diverse  indeed. As a homage to Handel they are often written in the dance forms of  Handel’s day such  as a siciliana, and a musette. 

They gradually build up in intensity before launching into the great fugue which is real virtuosic stuff.  What a piece!  Jessica made much of the contrast in mood. Her playing of the more gentle variations was lyrical and tender which contrasted sharply with other variations which were staccato and ‘urgent’.  All the time she highlighted the original Handel theme; the root of the variations. The fugue was brilliantly played. As the work gathers momentum fingers are flying, hands are crossing in a great visual blur. 

It is hardly surprising that Jessica said that she was both physically and emotionally exhausted after performing the work. The audience was thrilled, marvelling at Jessica’s manual dexterity and her very thoughtful interpretation.  Please come again. 

These recitals in Saint Peter’s have become an established feature in Marlborough's musical diary, and it was of some concern that the audience was thinner than it has been in the past. 

We must do our utmost to ensure that these wonderful concerts - and the good cause which they promote - continue to prosper.