Chris Greenslade at St Andrew’s with Schumann, Janáček and Beethoven

St Andrew’s on The Terrace – free lunchtime concert

Chris Greenslade (piano). Romances Nos 1 and 2, Op 28 (Schumann), In the Mists (Janáček), Piano sonata in E, Op 109 (Beethoven)

Wednesday 8 July 2009

An interesting programme which I’d thought might have attracted more people. When did we last hear Janáček’s piano music? And I’d have thought Schumann would have brought them in too. But I reveal my prejudices.

There are three Romances in Schumann’s little Op 28 set. Only the second is familiar: a very charming piece that I probably encountered in a piano album when I was young. Chris Greenslade, who studied with Richard Mapp at the Massey University Conservatorium of Music and later at the Royal Northern College of Music and is now based at Waikato, opened his recital with the second Romance, handling it with an intimacy and warmth that raised it above the level of a salon piece; confirmed by the attention he gave to the series of disturbing bass chords in its latter stages. No 1, in B flat minor, is a turbulent piece, of relentless arpeggios that spoke in Schumann’s other voice, and which the pianist captured convincingly.

In the Mists was written during the long, dispiriting years, when Janáček was hardly known outside of Moravia, as he waited for Jenufa to be performed. Greenslade understood the frustration that permeates the four movement suite, explored its personal revelations carefully and he also grasped the sense of the uneasy little chord sequence in the right hand. The second movement is perhaps the most affecting and memorable, and Greenslade shaped its narrow-ranging motif to suggest mystery, interrupted by a passage of clattering confusion. In the next movement there was more openness as the pianist gently drew back the blinds to enjoy the sight of the outside world.

Though marked Presto, Greenslade withheld any precipitate rush to grasp what might merely be a spectre, but dramatized the pauses and hesitations that finally gave way to propulsive bass octaves that seemed difficult to stop.

Beethoven’s sonata No 30 has two short movements, and a third movement, somewhat longer, Theme and Variations, that explores the inexpressible. In scale it seems a world away from the immediately preceding sonata – the mighty Hammerklavier.

Just because these late works are held in such veneration, it is common to suggest that it is only the Brendels, Schnabels, Richters and Kempffs who can do them justice; but normally capable pianists who steep themselves in the music’s spirit can produce satisfying performances.

Greenslade’s performance, marred a little by lapses in the last movement, was a credit to him. The first movement was not too hasty, allowing space for the drama to develop. It also provided contrast with the much faster second movement, where fast treble passages lost some clarity. The Theme and Variations – Molto cantabile ed espressivo – opened calmly and there were subtle gestures such as a touch of elasticity in the turning of the main, achingly beautiful melody.

Audiences seem to be increasing for this long-standing concert series. Performances of this calibre will help numbers to grow.

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