Russian Connections

Stravinsky – Suite Italienne
Britten – Cello Suite No. 3, Op. 87
Tchaikovsky – Valse sentimentale from 6 Pieces, Op. 51
Tchaikovsky – None But the Lonely Heart
Rachmaninov – Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19

Joy Lisney – cello
James Lisney – piano

The Russian Connections Tour reached its conclusion at the start of this week at London’s Kings Place. This relatively young concert hall lived up to its claims to be a true hub for the arts, a stones throw from Kings Cross Station. We were particularly delighted with the futuristic car parking arrangements which involve driving into a lift which carries the car down into a subterranean car and cycle park… The concert hall itself is impeccably managed and provided state of the art video and recording facilities for our concert, samples of which are now available on YouTube!

Here is the Britten Suite. Head over to my channel for more…

We visited many places on this tour, some familiar, some quite new, from the Leipzig Gewandhaus to some charming smaller venues tucked away in the most unexpected places.

The ‘prologue’ to the Russian Connections tour was a very special concert in northern Germany, in the Sendesaal Bremen. Our concert was part of the Konzerte im Dunkeln series and as such, took place in absolute darkness. One cannot help suspect that British health and safety laws would forbid such a thing… Particularly in a hall seating a few hundred people!

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Swung by Bruge on the way to Bremen…

Although we did not perform our complete Russian Connections programme, all four composers were represented and Britten’s solo suite took centre stage, after a contemplative opening of Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina. After recovering from the initial surprise at the removal of all light – it is amazing how dark it gets when there is absolutely no light pollution whatsoever – I felt that it was a liberating experience for both performers and audience. On stage my greatest challenge was not the physical one of navigating round the instrument, but rather remembering to keep projecting the music out into an audience I could not see.

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Leipzig’s famous Christmas market

Despite the Russian theme of this tour, it was at a small but charming venue on the east coast of England that we got very close to a part of our programme in geographical terms. Clinging onto land with the wetlands of the River Colne stretching into the distance, Studio Music is the ultimate in quirky concert venues and despite its diminutive size has played host to such giants of the music world as Dame Emma Kirkby. The building is at once a home, an art gallery and a concert hall and the audience surround the players on all sides, some of them even sitting up the stairs on specially procured cushions. Only a few miles up the coast is Aldeburgh, where Benjamin Britten made his home and composed the
Third Suite for Cello.

Britten takes us on a journey from the bleak Suffolk mud-flats, through a rich heritage of western music with Bach’s solo suites clearly hovering over the composer’s shoulder, finally reaching a climactic outburst where western structural sensibility and Russian passion are combined in an extensive Passacaglia. The energy reaches a critical peak and suddenly dissipates, revealing the skeleton of the piece – three simple Russian folk songs and the melancholic Kontakion from the orthodox church.

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Benjamin Britten embraces Mstislav Rostropovich – the dedicatee of the 3rd Suite (Photography: Erich Auerbach/Getty)

The rest of our programme is quite clearly Russian, but the Connections are perhaps not quite so obvious. Stravinsky’s colourful Suite Italienne opened each evening, a veritable kaleidoscope of timbre and sentiments as befits its origins as the ballet Pulcinella, a comic Punch and Judy tale first performed at the Paris Opera with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky’s collaborator in this arrangement was the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who provides the link to our second half, since he arranged the two Tchaikovsky pieces which followed the interval.

The ravishing Rachmaninov Sonata completed our concert with two connections. Firstly there is the fact that Rachmaninov took inspiration for many of the melodies in this piece from the Russian liturgy, thus linking back to Britten’s quotation of the Kontakion. The second connection is a personal one: my father James studied the piano with the pianist Phyllis Sellick, who was a great friend of Rachmaninov. When I was much younger and just at the beginning of my cello playing life, Phyllis requested that we play this piece for her. However she suffered a stroke and passed away before I ever learnt it, giving us an added sense of poignancy each time we perform this music.

I so enjoyed performing this programme and will be sad to part ways with these pieces, though of course I am sure to come back to them in the future with new ideas and new experiences behind me.

I would like to thank all the venues who hosted our concerts and most importantly the audiences who came to hear us!

That’s all for now,

Joy

 

The Russian Connections Tour visited:

Sendesaal Bremen (Germany),
Mosterdzaadje (Santpoort-Noord, Netherlands)
West Road Concert Hall (Cambridge)
Pittville Pump Rooms (Cheltenham)
Hindhead Music Centre (Surrey)
St. George’s Bristol
Pollok House (Glasgow)
Studio Music (Brightlingsea)
Gewandhaus Leipzig (Germany)
Kings Place (London)

 

— with thanks to Beare Violins Ltd. —

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‘JOY’ – Jan Vriend (2011)

To have a piece of music written for you can be a burden of responsibility, or it can be supremely liberating. Jan Vriend’s JOY is certainly the latter and my affinity with the piece runs much more deeply than our shared name.

This music is the epitome of true unity between piano and cello. The colourful textures that emerge as the piece progresses are characterised by something beyond communication between the musicians. Sometimes Vriend makes great use of the contrast in timbres between cello and piano and engages the musicians in dialogue. For much of the piece, however, the parts seem to be borne from one intention, requiring a special unanimity between the players to create a variety of fascinating colours from the combination of the two instruments. Indeed, when I play JOY, more than most other music, I am playing both parts, in a heightened state of consciousness which is wholly personal but also the most honest communication of the music.

Honesty is at the core of JOY. It makes evident the human struggle for, well, ‘joy’ and takes the player and audience on this journey. The music is fundamentally melodic and its unselfconscious nature is a hallmark of Vriend’s style, which is both very individual and yet instinctive to play and hear.

The cello writing is challenging because of the sweeping range of the melodies, which often span more than two octaves. Once this technical challenge can be overcome, however, the trajectories and tone of the music is strikingly vocal.

https://joylisney.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/joy-1-14.mp3

The rising phrases of the opening section seem to betray a desperate longing for something altogether out of reach, and indeed this same urge returns throughout between excursions to various ‘tableaux’. The first is a passage that glistens with the glassiness of harmonics, a contrast with the richly scored opening, finishing with the unmistakeable sounds of wailing seagulls in the cello.

https://joylisney.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/joy-54-63.mp3

Then the piano takes over, leading us into a whirlwind of stormy virtuosity, punctuated by rapid pizzicato in the cello. Out of this chaos springs, like a glorious fountain, a quotation from Chopin’s Winter Wind etude. Jan Vriend’s tribute to Chopin is rooted in a supreme admiration of his music and also a reference to the fact that JOY was partly inspired by a performance of Chopin’s cello sonata op. 65.

At the centre of the piece, there is a still moment of reflection, which for me brings to mind the cello movement of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin de temps. Pulsing chords in the piano and a long sustained melody in the cello put a stop to the energetic momentum that is characteristic of Vriend’s music. Soon, however, the music returns to the yearning figures of the opening from which the composer leads us into a strangely submerged passage in which the cello plays quarter-tones, the highly chromatic sounds between the notes! Finally the momentum builds to a furious climax, but it is quickly dissipated, and if you listen very carefully you might hear another quotation, this time thinly veiled and played by the cello, a lone voice still daring to whisper with the spirit of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

The musical extracts are from a live performance I gave in the Pittville Pump Room in Cheltenham with my father James Lisney. The full live recording can be found here.

We are releasing a studio recording of JOY along with works by Chopin and Lutoslawski in 2013 on Woodhouse Editions.