latest edition of the Music on Mondays at St Michael at the Northgate featured
international pianist Yundi Xu, once of Beijing and now, after 10 years in
Paris, completing her studies at the Royal Academy of Music. Her programme covered four composers and 142
years, and comprised both pieces familiar to her and ones recently added to her
We commenced with two Chopin Etudes; Etude in E minor ('Wrong
Note') – the soubriquet refers to its featuring a number of dissonant
chords - is a tricky opener since Chopin intended his Etudes as technical
exercises and here the fingering is awkward around those chords, and the vivace tempo demanding from a standing
start. Yundi Xu settled, however, into a keen rhythm and brought off the work
with aplomb. The No. 8 Etude ('Sunshine')
is more accessible than some of its companions and was presciently chosen for
this recital since the sun kept coming from behind the cumulus clouds and
peeping in through the south window of the church. The left hand contains the bright
melody, and careful dynamic control is necessary – and happily present here –
so that the two hands should sound balanced.
Xu, elegant in black and cream,
had her stool set lengthways to the Ibach piano, and, perching on its
edge, she leaned forward intently to the keyboard, giving an impression
both of working hard and yet being at ease in this space and with this
We then stepped back a century for one of the pair of piano sonatas composed by the 21 year old Mozart on a foray to Mannheim in 1777. This one, No. 9 (K311), is unusual in having its second subject recapitulated before its opening theme. Although Ms Yu immediately displayed an appropriately lighter touch for the piece in the first part of the Allegro con spirito, both later in the movement and especially in the following Andante con espressione I thought her playing, for all its accuracy, lacked just that little finesse of touch that might have acknowledged Mozart's own use of a fortepiano and differentiated this music a shade more clearly from its neighbours in the programme.
Later we heard Prokofiev's sinewy Piano Sonata No.3, Ms Yu bringing its first section to a fine, rolling crescendo, and then appropriate solemnity to Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2, the famous 3rd movement of which, the tolling Marche Funèbre, was played at Elgar's memorial concert and indeed at the graveside during Chopin's own burial. Before these we heard Ravel's Une Barque sur l'Océan from his impressionistic set of Miroirs, its marked stylistic contrast with the bulk of the programme maybe a trifle awkward. But our soloist's repeated dabbing at the very top end of the range pleasantly suggested the trickling of a light breeze through the sails or the water lapping gently at the boat's sides.
Just round the corner on Cornmarket St, a homeless busker was singing Ben E. King's R&B 1961 anthem Stand By Me as we made our way away. St Michael's, with sister churches in Oxford, is involved in funding the Oxford Winter Night Shelter; so yes, it is standing by that busker and his colleagues. Together with the money raised for Yundi's chosen charity, Children of the Mekong, active in sponsoring educational programmes in SE Asia, these weekly concerts are fulfilling one of the great functions of music: that of contributing to the integration of society; encouraging people to come together harmoniously.