James Sherlock, delightful evening of piano music at Leighton Buzzard Library Theatre

James Sherlock blew onto the stage of Leighton Buzzard Library Theatre on Saturday 16th February like a breath of spring in his daffodil yellow socks (for which he apologised) and an amusing line in anecdotes (you couldn’t make up Dame Fanny Waterman’s masterclass, could you?) to underline his delightful skill and talent on the piano.

The programme was a Chopin sandwich with a wide range of fillings. Sherlock began with Chopin’s Barcarolle in F# major, Op 60. A barcarolle was originally a gondolier’s song. Although Chopin loved Venice this is the only barcarolle that he wrote. It is chock full of his characteristically mellifluous melodies, illustrating the lagoon and moon above it. A pair of lovers in their gondola bob up and down on the irridescent wavelets. Magical. Really, if you don’t enjoy Chopin’s piano music you must be dead.

Next we enjoyed a short piano sonata (in E flat major, K282) by Mozart written in the composer’s middle age (he was eighteen at the time …). Sherlock moved fleetly through the Adagio, danced through the two little Menuetti and finished with the flourish of the tiny Allegro. His obvious affection for the music emphasised what very good tunes Mozart wrote, even if sometimes they don’t have the subtext of other, weightier composers.

To follow was A Farewell to Hirta, written by Francis Pott in 1994. Anyone who’s read my reports before will remember how I enjoy being introduced to music that is being written now.  I haven’t come across Pott before, but I shall certainly look out for more of his compositions having heard this. ‘Hirta’ is gaelic for St Kilda, and this piece describes how the tiny population finally had to leave the island in 1930, their way of living with nature having been disturbed to the point where it could no longer sustain them. It was moody and yearning (perhaps unsurprisingly) with the occasional Scotch snap peeking out and a great wheeling and wailing of seabirds (part of the islanders diet) pulsing through it. It ended with a single sonorous note from the bottom of the keyboard which Sherlock allowed to die away to nothing. Super. Sherlock played this one piece from music – which he had loaded onto an iPad, turning his own pages with the flourish of a forefinger. No more floppy music, no more pages that have been turned too soon or too late, or won’t stay turned. The way of the future this, surely!

The final piece before the interval was J S Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, a partita transcribed for piano, which James Sherlock described as being ’72 variations lasting five seconds each, imitating an entire orchestra of instruments, moving from major to minor and back again’. And so it proved. After the Chopin and the Pott with their underlying stories, this music relied on cleverness and energy, this brought out by the light and shade and sheer brio with which Sherlock performed it. With our enthusiastic applause still ringing he jogged off stage. We shogged off to the bar.

The second half began with two little pieces by Schumann. The Romance in F# major (Op 28 no 2) is the middle one of three and was a favourite with Clara, when she and Robert Schumann were engaged. We were instructed to note particularly that it is ‘a duet for thumbs’, which move together and in thirds throughout. It was certainly a duet (whether for thumbs or lovers) of great power and quietude. Widmung is a transcription by Liszt of one of Schumann’s songs. It is a riot of  embellishment on a simple theme and was particularly effective after the restrained Romance.

We were now firmly in Romantic territory and continued yet deeper in, drawn by Sherlock’s choice of music and his performance. Debussy’s Images, Book 1 is a trio of little pieces. It began with ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ which carried the listener hither and yon like a twig in a stream until, at the end, the import of the title suddenly swam into view. This was followed by a slow sarabande (‘Hommage a Rameau’) of earthy and majestic proportions. Finally the best known movement of the three – ‘Mouvement’ – rollicked through a series of gaily animated triplets.

Which lushness brought us back, once more, to the king of lushness: Chopin. The final bon bouche of our Chopin sandwich was his Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat major, Op 61. It’s a fantastical composition, written  immediately after the Barcarolle which began the evening, and seemed to draw together the music we had enjoyed throughout the evening – here were echoes of the Scotch snaps of Pott, the dances by Chopin, Mozart and Bach and the fantasy of Liszt’s Schumann transcription. Chopin wrote many polonaises (the dance from his Polish homeland that he loved), but this was his last and the one which moved furthest from the traditional form, breaking new compositional ground. It is one of his finest pieces and a fitting end to a lovely evening of music.

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