Georgina Zellan-Smith – new light on the “Moonlight”

Piano recital by Georgina Zellan-Smith

Music by Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Chopin – plus some “popular favorites” requests.

House concert, Johnsonville, Wellington

Tuesday 22nd November 2011

Auckland-based pianist Georgina Zellan-Smith is, sadly, an infrequent visitor to Wellington these days. She performed here last at a commemorative concert in 2008 which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Richard Farrell, on which occasion she played an excerpt from Liszt’s Italian Book of his “Years of Pilgrimage”. On that evening she shared the piano with Maurice Till, Margaret Nielsen, Diedre Irons and Jun Bouterey-Ishido. So it was with the keenest of anticipation that I awaited her proposed house-concert scheduled for November in Johnsonville, and for which she would presumably have the piano all to herself (no reflection whatever, of course, on those other excellent pianists who contributed so movingly to the Richard Farrell evening).

In the event, she gave her attentive and highly appreciative audience a richly-conceived programme, using an instrument (a Kawai) whose tones seemed particularly sonorous at the lower end of the sound-spectrum. Whether this quality was in fact a natural penchant of the pianist’s towards middle and lower tones, or whether the player connected with and used the instrument’s intrinsic voicings to noticeable advantage, I’m not entirely sure. But in places such as throughout the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, under Zellan-Smith’s fingers the middle and bass voices of the music had a fuller, richer and darker aspect than one normally experiences in this music. The effect was to bring a somewhat uneasy, almost sinister quality to the familiar “Moonlight on the lake waters” evocation, and explore a whole new dimension of feeling and response to the composer’s vision. Never have I heard this music sounding more than it could have been out of Schumann’s “Kreisleriana”, the lower voicing emphasizing the shadows stalking the right-hand melody throughout.

In this context the second movement of the “Moonight  made for a strong contrast, the syncopated rhythms in the middle section played fully out, suggesting something more elemental than what we normally hear. The finale continued the music’s mood, bringing great weight as well as momentum, Zellan-Smith pointing the rhythmic trajectories of the music to compelling, energetic effect rather than relying merely on speed for excitement. She also made a great deal of the claustrophobic contrasting episodes, hands close together concentrating the music into obsessive repetitions before opening up the vistas with the concluding rolling arpeggiations. Alone, the pianist’s playing of this somewhat hackneyed, but still potentially magical work made the concert worthwhile for me.

Incidentally, as a kind of prelude to the “Moonlight”, Zellan-Smith gave us the beautiful Adagio Cantabile” from the same composer’s “Pathetique” Sonata – and again she found in the music such a rich well of light and dark feeling. It was her left-hand work which riveted me, the ebb and flow of tonal coloring beautifully controlling and shaping the right-hand melody (one of the world’s great tunes, I think), the tempo not particularly slow, but always giving things time to breathe, each note specifically placed instead of being delivered in a generalized way. She made a great thing of the middle section’s arched magnificence, her left hand again making certain that all the music’s voices had a part in the overall scheme of things. I could have, on this showing, happily listened to her playing an entire program of Beethoven – what wouldn’t she have done with things like the wonderful “Les Adieux” Sonata, or one of those unearthly late masterpieces such as Op.111?

But then we would have had to do without some other deliciously different things, such as the recital’s opening piece, a Scarlatti Sonata in F Major, played here with such a delicious amalgam of grace, energy and good humor – something that fellow-New Zealand pianist Margaret Nielsen would, I’m sure, have called “great character” – and a Mendelssohn work that I couldn’t recall having ever heard before (to my shame, as a piano-fancier!), his Fantasia in F-sharp Minor, Op.28 (known also as the “Scottish Sonata”), a tremendous piece, beginning with swirling, almost Gothic-like arpeggiated mists, from which developed a beautiful, melancholic theme not unlike that from the opening of Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata. In places Zellan-Smith’s playing strongly brought out the connection with Bach’s toccata-like organ works, Mendelssohn paying homage, one suspects, to those fantastic harmonic modulations that readily conjure up dimly-lit and spookily obsessive dream-like sequences of deranged organists lost in their private worlds of sound. I liked the pianist’s winsome treatment of the theme’s intermingling of major and minor at the end of the movement, and the soft drumbeats acknowledging the ending’s ghostly echoes.

As with the Beethoven Sonata, there’s a graceful ,dance-like movement between the two outer giants (shades of Schumann’s “flower between two chasms” – or was it Liszt who said that of the “Moonlight” Sonata’s middle movement?) – here, the pianist played the dance more for strength than for charm, which I liked, the music to my ears responding positively to such a purposeful approach. As for the last movement’s “diabolique” impulses, Mendelssohn’s sprites tend to be more mischievous than malevolent, though here the delicacies seemed to have flint-edges, the composer managing to conjure up a Beethoven-like mood of agitation in places (though the “Scottish” ambiences of the first movement didn’t seem to be carried over strongly into the rest of the work). Zellan-Smith kept the music’s serious mood to the fore, avoiding the “drawing-room gentility” that tends to hang about a lot of the composer’s chamber and instrumental music, and maintaining an “edge” to the textures and rhythms right up to the work’s final energetic flourishes.

A further delight of the recital was Georgina Zellan-Smith’s playing of a couple of items from her recent CD of popular piano classics, “Remembrance”, including the beautifully atmospheric “Rustle of Spring” by Christian Sinding, the piano on this occasion giving the pianist’s swirling left-hand accompaniments in places a bit more weight and body than on the CD recording, and providing the agitato feeling that the more delicate episodes o the music need to bring out their full effect. By the time the pianist reached the Chopin items which concluded the program, including the fleet-fingered Fantasie-Impromptu (another world-famous melody) I suspect that the effort of realizing both the Beethoven and Mendelssohn items so whole-heartedly was beginning to take its toll, though the G-flat waltz in particular was a great pleasure to experience. In all, there was a great deal of wonderful music and fully-committed music-making packed into what seemed like too short a time, throughout this recital. I do hope we in Wellington get further opportunities to hear Georgina Zellan-Smith play more of the music she obviously loves and illuminates with such skill and understanding.