On a damp, dull Sunday morning, Holywell St was illuminated by an alternative source to that of the sun; a Chopin recital by Oxfordshire's Viv McLean, a cornucopia containing a Prelude, three Nocturnes, two Polonaises, a Scherzo and a Mazurka. McLean is an old Coffee Concert hand, most recently having appeared with the Adderburys just a fortnight ago for Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet, and his affection for the Music Room was expressed in his announcement as he sat down on his piano stool: 'it's nice to be back at my favourite venue in the whole world.' Such words tend to lay something of a duty of quality of performance upon the artist who utters them – and we were not disappointed.
This was an eclectic programme that included some well-known pieces from the canon, but excluded overplayed Classic FM-type greatest hits: Nocturnes like the B flat minor Opus 9, No. 1, or its even more ubiquitous companion, Op. 9, No. 2. We began with the Prelude in C sharp minor, op. 45, played in a steady 'andante' tempo varied by late-on figures that seemed almost more appropriate as a cadenza in one of the two piano concertos. This was followed by a coda, played here very quietly in accordance with McLean's clear intention to mark the differentiations in tempo between the various genres in this recital. Nor was he afraid to extend the length of the pauses, usefully reminding us that the pauses in Chopin's solo piano works, like those in the plays of Harold Pinter, have an expressive significance much greater than their modest nature would suggest.
our soloist moved on to the first Nocturne, the well-known G minor, Op. 37, No. 1, he did not hesitate to reduce his pace from
'adagio' to' largo' in the outer sections, and it was interesting to observe
that through the central, contrasting chorale the pianist's right hand never
progresses further than halfway up the keyboard. The first of the Polonaise-Fantaisies,
Op. 61 showed the more rumbustious,
even muscular face of the composer in its middle section as McLean enjoyed the
freedom of escaping the rustic dance rhythm of the Polonaise.
Of the two following Nocturnes, the simplicity of the G minor Op. 37 No. 1 seemed to set the tone for the recital: a strong intimacy emerged through the impression that the pianist was playing, in a sense, for himself and that we, the audience, had been invited into the salon for the morning to enjoy the music. There was a pleasing appropriateness in this when one considers that, for the last 16 years of his life, Chopin's recitals of his own compositions all but abandoned the concert hall for the more intimate setting of the private music room or the Parisian salon.
Mike Wheeler's programme notes told us how Schumann, a great admirer of Chopin, remarked on the absence of light-hearted tone to the No. 1 companion piece to the Scherzo [literally: 'jest'] no 2 in B flat minor, op 31: 'How is gravity to clothe itself if humour wears such dark veils?' McLean brought out the jagged nature of the piece, pressing down hard on the keys at the very top and the very bottom of the range. He also managed, I thought, to express the vehemence of the conclusion with a measure of lyricism – not at all easy to do.
The Mazurka in A minor, op 17 no 4 is another example of how Chopin took an established genre – here a Polish dance newly-popular in early 19th century Paris – and pushed its possibilities beyond its established envelope. The ethereal conclusion to this short work, and McLean had the last notes fading away almost to nothingness, comprises no satisfactory underpinning to any feasible dance measure. Chopin has here moved a long way away from the genre's original raison d'être. The famous tune of the Polonaise in A flat, op 53, almost a national anthem, rang out until its declamation was quelled by a passage containing a little, dotted rhythm from the left hand. The combination, a musical curds and whey, provided food for thought until the rapturous applause at the end.