Pianist Nicola Melville returns to give memorable recital at St Andrew’s

Images, Book I: Reflets dans l’eau, Hommage à Rameau, Mouvement (Debussy); Jettatura (Psathas); Nocturne in B, Op 62 No 1 (Chopin); Three Piano Rags by William Albright

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 18 April, 12.15pm

Nicola Melville holds an assistant professorship at a university in Minnesota and is on the summer faculty of the Chautauqua Music Festival in up-state New York (south of Buffalo, close to Lake Erie). She was educated in Tawa schools and at Victoria University (where she was one of Judith Clark’s many talented students) and at the Eastman School of Music in New York State. Since then, in the United States, she has had important competition successes, and won prestigious grants, has performed at music festivals and recorded standard repertoire as well as works commissioned by her.

Her programme was very well gauged for a free lunchtime concert, with pieces both familiar and fairly new.

The three pieces that comprise Debussy’s Images Book I for piano opened the recital, played with remarkable fluency and sensitivity. Reflets dans l’eau shimmered with velvety sound, suggesting not perfect calm but water rippling after the three notes are dropped into it, and regains its reflective character towards the end. Hommage à Rameau is not really ‘in the style of’ but simply a less impressionistic piece, bearing a certain formality and basically traditional harmonies that Debussy stretches and colours: in tone more like the suite Pour le piano, and perhaps kinship with Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. Melville seemed to find the essence of each – so different – characterising them with clarity and precision, stamping each with the composer’s unmistakable musical personality; Mouvement suggested a very different scene, of a trapped insect or fast-spinning machine, created by throbbing, motoric figures that do not go anywhere but move in a confined space, demanding not just speed but the creation of shapely phrasing and dynamics all of which flowed effortlessly from her hands.

Nicola described the origin of John Psathas’s Jettatura (she remarked that she had been Psathas’s contemporary at the School of Music), reading the composer’s own notes prefaced to the score about the significance of the name and the misfortunes and bad luck that have attended his visits to his family homeland, led his family to attribute to an ‘evil eye’ or jettatura (in Italian).

He wrote: ‘The belief is that a person can harm you, your children, your livestock, merely by looking at them with envy and praising them…”. On a visit in 1998 bad luck struck his wife and son and his sister consulted a village soothsayer who checked John’s aura by long-distance telephone. “The soothsayer gasped, went silent, and declared I was so heavily and completely hexed that my halo was utterly opaque.”

His talisman to defend himself against the jettatura, is this little composition.

It called for hard-hitting, impassioned fingering, and the creation of a sense of defiance and ferocity, almost out of control. Both hands are fully occupied in entirely different activities, the left hand hammering a string of ostinatos while the right hand tumbled in an apparently reckless way over the keys, reaching to the top of the keyboard. A brilliant composition that perhaps found its ideal interpreter in this brilliant expatriate pianist.

Then back to Chopin with one of the less familiar of his 21 Nocturnes. Op 62 No 2 is the last of the nocturnes published in his lifetime (there are three without opus number, two early, one late). They are not as much played in concert as the scherzi and ballades and impromptus, many of the waltzes and mazurkas but, as Roger Woodward writes, “[The nocturnes] are the key to Chopin. They represent the high art of Romanticism and a great way to begin to understand how to play melody well.”

This one has not the quite beguiling ease of the early ones of Op 9, the F sharp major, or the entrancing melody of the nocturnes of Opp 32 and 37, the F minor, or the posthumous C sharp minor.

However, some consider the two nocturnes of Op 62 the most interesting, the most contrapuntally complex, and though the shift from Psathas to Chopin might have seemed a retreat into a simpler world, Nicola’s presentation of its modest, restrained artistry had the effect of cleansing the air, with the subtlest rubato, discreet pedalling and velvety articulation.

Finally, to animate a quite different part of the brain, three Piano Rags by William Albright, pieces that had their roots in Scott Joplin  Nicola has become an Albright specialist, with many recorded on CD, as you will find if you Google ‘William Albright rags’.

The first thing you notice is the flood of notes, and a greater complexity and variety of rhythm and harmony, of dynamics and modulation than you find in the early 20th century precursors. On the other hand, there was no less feeling of an idiomatic performance from the pianist.

The frequent and unusual key changes would have surprised Jelly Roll Morton or Fats Waller. We strike the unexpected at every turn, and it struck me that the rags may have been chosen to match aspects of the character of Jettatura (or more likely the other way round). The second, Sleepwalker’s Shuffle, began softly swinging, in a relaxed spirit, which is suddenly broken by a fortissimo phase in stride style that would have woken the sleepwalker with a nightmare. The Queen of Sheba rather defied interpretation, toyed with chromaticism, pauses, surprises, her left heel tapping the floor, a presto molto burst where traditional harmonies were spiced with dissonances.

They are enormous fun, and enormously challenging, and there is no possibility that they could have been written before the late 20th century. I cannot imaging a more enthusiastic and accomplished advocate of this infectious music than Nicola Melville.