Monday, 24 October 2011

Grace Francis at Hungarian Cultural Centre, 24 October 2011

After several months of not writing about music, attending this free hour-long recital at the Hungarian Cultural Centre in London provoked such strong reactions within me that I feel the need to record them, if only to try and work out exactly why I came away from it feeling as I do.

First, let's state things as they were: the rectangular first-floor salon of the Hungarian Cultural Centre in London is about ample enough a size for a piano recital, though with a couple of rows of seats removed it would have been rather more comfortable. The acoustic was dry and rather brittle. The piano, a John Broadwood baby grand, looked in more than decent condition, and having once owned a Broadwood dating from c. 1880 I know well the nuances of timbre that the instruments can produce and hoped for much on this occasion. Finally, the pianist, Grace Francis, possesses a decent track record if her biography is to be believed: Yehudi Menuhin School, winner of the Chappell Gold Medal at the Royal College of Music, competition prize winner, recitals at Wigmore Hall, South Bank Centre, etc., broadcast on BBC Radio 3,  and a CD of Liszt's piano music already released. 

The concert's programme was largely Liszt too: Sposalizio (from Années de Pèlerinage, Deuxième Année), Sonata in B Minor and Mephisto Waltz no 1. A selection of movements from Prokofiev's Visions Fugitives completed the programme.

The reading of Sposalizio foretold much of what was to follow: extreme emphasis of dynamics at the fortissimo end that was at times almost unbearable in the dry and rather boxy acoustic of the room, quieter passages often seemed an afterthought amongst the volleys of fireworks on display. The sonata showed that Grace Francis is capable of interesting shaded playing on occasions, though far too infrequently. Far more serious though was the lack of sense of form in her playing, the sonata seeming little more than a sequence of episodes strung together at will. To be fair, her efforts throughout the concert were significantly hampered by a major voicing issue in the instrument's treble register - whether this was the result of mis-tuning the instrument or over-exertion in rehearsal prior to the concert is a matter for conjecture. My guess would be mis-tuning though, and the Cultural Centre would do well to look at this, since the instrument itself is of a higher quality than commonly found in comparable venues. Alas, it was exactly into this register that the more delicate moments selected from Prokofiev's Visions Fugitives fell, much to their detriment.

As the first notes of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz no 1 sounded, I was not particularly looking forward to what could follow. But as it progressed, I reflected on the undoubted technical prowess and physical power that Grace Francis brought to the performance. Whilst the performance did not provide comfortable listening throughout, was she perhaps a victim of the instrument and the acoustic? To an extent, almost certainly. Her conception of Liszt required the sonority of a full concert grand and decent acoustic to properly accommodate it. A fortissimo played in the Royal Festival Hall is not the same as one played in a salon, so why play it as if it is? And still I wonder why some musicians actually seem unaware of the quality of tone they produce! Liszt and Prokofiev require of any pianist not just technical facility to produce the big stuff but delicacy, imagination and insight of interpretation to fully meet the challenges they throw down. Without that their music is cheapened. Grace Francis is undoubtedly on her way as a performer, but she still has some distance to travel.  On balance then, there were some hints of positivity as well as room for improvement all round. 

photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega

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