Website for Jonathan Powell, pianist
In a curious and (perhaps fittingly for 2020) unexpected sequence of events it has turned out that not giving concerts is very beneficial for what I would call, for want of a better word, my career (and I imagine there is surely a lesson to be learned here). As all concerts stopped, I settled into our hillside home and have not left the immediate area since I returned — in the nick of time, it turned out — from my last concert trip in early March. Just around then, a lot of very appreciative reviews started appearing for my recording, made a sufficient number years ago that I can listen to it largely without experiencing pain, of Sorabji’s Sequentia cyclica (I will provide links to or post these separately), and this made the first weeks relatively entertaining. Sorabji’s music is, if nothing else, rather ‘Marmitey’ (i.e. you love it or find it awful — to borrow my friend Finn Peters’ description of drum’n’bass), so I had if anything prepared myself for a load of incomprehension as to why anyone would bother with this stuff (and there are precedents for this). In May, this critical excitement started hotting up with some broadcasts of bits of it in the UK (on Radio Three’s Record Review, with kind words from no less a figure than Kenneth Hamilton) and then receiving an unequivocal thumbs-up from the doyenne of German music criticism, Eleonore Buening, on a similar programme on SWR. The general good reception eventually reached a peak with the latter and her colleagues awarding me the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritiken in the solo piano category. Never having been awarded such a thing before, I was surprised, somehow pleased that people liked the music, and wondered what, if anything, might come from this.
Expecting nothing in particular (as is my wont), I was surprised to receive an invitation from a distinguished German-Russian pianist to play Sequentia cyclica in the Heidelberger Fruehling next year. And after two decades of a rather haphazard and lackadaisical approach to getting concerts and making contacts, I’m rather relieved that a professional in the field has offered to collaborate in this matter: yesterday I exchanged contracts with PUSKAS INTERNATIONAL artist management & consultancy so, like every other performer, I await 2021 with baited breath …
In other news, I have written eight of ten movements of a Partita for solo piano, a 50th birthday gift to my friend Christophe Sirodeau. After a bit of time not playing the piano very much (motivation suddenly eluded me after years of working to deadlines), I’m working on three concertante pieces — Beethoven’s 4th concerto (with cadenzas by Medtner and Busoni), Alkan’s 2nd Concerto da camera, and Reinecke’s wonderful Konzertstuck (which has several passages that rather strikingly pre-empt Tchaikovsky’s first concerto) — which I’ll play with the Quintet from the Vienna Chamber Symphony next month in the excellent festival Indian Summer in Levoča (that is, if the Slovaks don’t close the borders to Poland).
I’m currently doing a bit of updating to this site. I have started by removing dead links and updating the biography. More to follow.
Last month was interesting with a trip to the UK the beginning of which coincided with an excellent feature by Sarah Walker on my new CD of solo piano works by Leonid Sabaneyev on BBC Radio 3’s Record Review. A couple of days later I appeared on the same station’s In Tune programme, when I was interviewed by Sean Rafferty and playing live on air pieces by Sabaneyev, Eiges, Scriabin and Michael Finnissy. During the same trip I also played Prokofiev’s 8th Sonata and the complete Rachmaninoff’s Etudes-tableaux op.39 for the first time.
Michael Finnissy is one of the world’s pre-eminent composers of piano music, and he will turn 70 this year. To mark this special occasion and to celebrate the breadth of his remarkable achievement, I’ll be playing his marvellous Verdi Transcriptions a few times. I gave the world premiere of this 3-hour work back in 2005, and so far dates have been secured in London (Guildhall School of Music and Drama, 13 March, 2pm), ‘S-Hertogenbosch (De Toonzaal, 2nd April, 8pm start, so I hope there’s somewhere still open when I’ve finished), and Oxford (Jacqueline du Pre Music Building, 30 April, 7.30pm). I’m working on more dates for the summer and autumn right now, and details will be posted when things are fixed.
In Seattle I still felt rather tired from the journey and was not actually on top form. Having said that, the welcome at Cornish was very warm, and the audience for the mixed programme (on the 28th) particularly was decent-sized. Seattle was incredibly wet. But it was very good to see notable KSS scholar Sean Owen after many years, and to also see the piano which was purportedly the first prepared by Cage. Many thanks to Sean and to Kent Devereaux (head of music at Cornish) for making the whole trip possible.
I was very pleased with both pianos I played on in Colorado — after all, if one is playing in a church in Europe, then one doesn’t usually expect a great instrument. However, both these Steinway D pianos were of the very best concert hall standard. Thanks very much for Chappell Kingsland who put together both events. It was also very good to meet people who had travelled a long way to hear me — from Texas and from California.
In NY again the audience for the mixed Romantic programme was bigger (than that my evening of contemporary music, which admittedly kicked off at 22.30) and was graced by auspicious figures such as Neil McKelvie (chess grandmaster, professor of biochemistry, expert on Ignacy Friedman, friend — I think — of Gunnar Johansson and no mean pianist himself), pianist Lloyd Arriola (see list of KSS performers), pianist and Sorabji-organiser Christopher Berg and composer Philip Ramey, to name just the ones I immediately remember. The piano at Spectrum was extremely good. Thanks to the initiative and flexibility of Glenn Cornett and the staff I was able to fit in a visit to the city.
For me, the best performance of Sequentia occurred in Chicago. By then, I had somehow got rid of the tiredness associated with non-stop concerts and travel through different time zones. I lectured on KSS at Columbia College of Arts, gave a lecture-recital of contemporary works, and also gave a talk-demonstration and masterclass to the piano students before playing Sequentia last Saturday evening. Again, the small size of the audience was more than compensated for by its notable constituents, this time including Ken Derus (a name familiar to many Sorabjians) and the composer George Flynn no less. The piano was a Fazioli, and a very good one too, more suited to the range of the work than even the fine instruments I’d played on earlier performances. The Chicago visit was made possible by composer and Columbia professor Ilya Levinson and Thomas Zoells of the PianoForte Foundation.
At the end of next week I’m leaving for some concerts in the US. Here are the details.
Tuesday 28 October, 8pm
PONCHO Concert Hall
710 East Roy
Seattle, WA 98102
Sorabji: Sonata no.1, Le Jardin parfumé / Medtner: Sonata op.30 / Scriabin: Sonata no.9, op.68 /
Szymanowski: Sonata no.2, op.21
Saturday 1 November, 2pm
PONCHO Concert Hall
Sorabji: Sequentia cyclica
Wednesday 5 November, 7:30pm
Trinity Presbyterian Church – 7755 Vance Drive, Arvada, Colorado 80003
Medtner: Sonata op.30 / Grieg: Lyric Pieces / Fauré: Barcarolle no.6, Nocturne no.6 / Chopin: Fourth Ballade /
Sorabji: Le jardin parfumé / Szymanowski: Sonata no.2
Thursday 6 November, 7.30pm
Mountain View United Methodist Church, 355 Ponca Place, Boulder, Colorado
Repeat of Wednesday’s programme
Saturday 8 November, 1.00pm
Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church – 1980 Dahlia Street / Denver, Colorado 80220
Sorabji: Sequentia cyclica
Monday 10 November, 8.30pm
121 Ludlow, second floor
Medtner: Sonata op.30 / Fauré: Nocturne no.11, Barcarolle no.6 / Scriabin: Sonata no.9
Sorabji: Le Jardin parfumé / Szymanowski: Sonata no.2, op.21
Tuesday 11 November, 10.30pm
Horatiu Radulescu: Sonata no.2 / Tristan Murail: La Mandragore
Giuliano D’Angiolini: Allegretto 94.6 / Giacinto Scelsi: Adieu / Gabriel Erkoreka: Kaila kantuz
Arturas Bumšteinas: Cordell/Wagner / Martyn Harry: Beltway Series / Morgan Hayes: Lute Stop
James Weeks: Siciliano / Laurence Crane: 20th-Century Music / Hilary Robison: 10.10.10
John White: Sonata no.164 / Richard Barrett: Lost
Thursday 13 November, 7pm
Columbia College Chicago
1014 South Michigan Avenue
Lecture Recital: Contemporary piano music
Horatiu Radulescu: Sonata no.2 / Giuliano D’Angiolini: Allegretto 94.6 / Giacinto Scelsi: Adieu / Gabriel Erkoreka: Kaila kantuz / Arturas Bumšteinas: Cordell/Wagner / Martyn Harry: Beltway Series Morgan Hayes: Lute Stop / James Weeks: Siciliano / Laurence Crane: 20th-Century Music / Hilary Robison: 10.10.10 / Richard Barrett: Lost
Saturday 15 November, 3pm
1335 S Michigan Av. Chicago IL 60605
Sorabji: Sequentia cyclica
A small tour of the UK, featuring Frank Bridge’s truly wonderful piano sonata, one of the masterpieces of early 20-century piano music, but far too little known.
FRANK BRIDGE Piano Sonata
DEBUSSY Berceuse héroïque and Pièce pour l’oeuvre du Vêtement du blessé
MEDTNER Piano Sonata op.30
RAVEL Le Tombeau de Couperin
Marking the centenary year of the outbreak of WW1, pianist Jonathan Powell presents music that reflects composers’ reactions to this conflict. Each movement of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin commemorates a fallen comrade, while Frank Bridge’s powerful Sonata is dedicated to the memory of his student Ernest Farrar who was killed on the Western Front in 1918. The programme is completed by the tempestuous ‘War’ Sonata (1917) by Nikolay Medtner, and two relatively unknown late miniatures by Debussy.
I’m playing the complete IBERIA cycle by Albeniz on 27 March, 7.30pm at
Rosslyn Hill Chapel, 3 Pilgrim’s Place, NW3 1NG London
This is very near Hampstead tube station. Tickets on door only.
There will then be more performances:
31 March, Manchester (UK), Chethams Music School;
3 April, Den Bosch, Netherlands, De Toonzaal;
6 April, Apeldoorn, Netherlands, Ereprijs studio;
9 April, Karlsruhe, DE, Musentempel, Hardtstr. 37a; and
12 April, Hotel Bachmair Weissach in Weißach, Bayern, DE (near Munich).
Then I will go home and sleep.
Thanks for reading!
I recently gave the first ever performances of this piece: the world premiere in ‘S-Hertogenbosch, NL, then the UK premiere in Oxford. It was quite an experience playing this work, especially in Oxford when the dedicatee Alistair Hinton was among the audience. Needless to say, he was hearing it for the first time.
A review has appeared of the first of these concerts.
Brabants Dagblad 28-10-2013: THE PIANO HIMALAYA CONQUERED
Powell treats Toonzaal audience with five hours of hypercomplex piano music of Kaikhosru Sorabji, by Mark van de Voort
Den Bosch – Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. A name for a composer that immediately evokes the wildest associations. And then they all turn out to be right too. The English composer Sorabji (1892-1988) has penned an awesome oeuvre. Exceedingly complex, painterly music where impressionism, hyperexpressionism, madcap fugues and his Persion roots are resounding. A great many piano and organ works, but also some gigantic orchestral works. Everything about Sorabji’s music is boundless. Not only in quantity, but also in duration. They are true marathon sessions. Music by a contrarial solitarian whose oeuvre is getting by and by disclosed.
Yesterday saw the belated world premiere of ‘Piano Symphony no. 6; Symphonia Claviensis’ (1975-76) in De Toonzaal at Den Bosch. Five hours music for solo piano, played by the possessed and inspired English Sorabji specialist Jonathan Powell. You have to be slightly maniacal if you wish to conquer such a Sorabjian piano Himalaya. In 2003 the Dutch pianist Reinier van Houdt threw himself five hours long wholeheartedly n Sorabji’s ‘Piano Symphony no. 4’. Powell was no second to him in this last symphony. A fascinating afternoon of piano music unfolded in De Toonzaal. A battle for the pianist and the small gathering of dedicated listening diehards. Powell was hardly granted breathing space: with Sorabji no simple repeats or prolonged sections of silence but unwavering fingerwrenching complexity. The lightning fast tempo changes and stormy dynamics appeared like children’s play in Powell’s hands. Sweat beaded at the temples while glasses were wiped. But the physical stamina and afflatus remained unaltered.
The first part already took over one-and-a-half hours. Extremely expressive music, an as listener you tumble right away into Sorabji’s stormy world full of peaks and abysses. Associations with the sound world of Debussy, Messiaen, Skriabin and Satie bubble up. Mercilessly complex but also at times surprisingly tender in expression. Delightfully decadent music of a composer who lives wholly inside his own head. Because of that, he doesn’t make things easy for anybody. The expressive, über-romantic music layers are stacked upon another and varied in such ways that at times one all but looses track. The second and third movements are more varied and belong to the best music Sorabji composed. The second movement even swings as in the animated ‘Toccata, but also manages to touch though a wonderfully serene ‘Quasi adagio’. With five amazing concluding fugues in the third part Sorabji shows all his capabilities. An unforgettable pianistic event.
A couple of reviews of my recording of Egon Kornauth’s music have come to my attention:
‘There is only one other piece by Egon Kornauth (1891-1959) listed on ArkivMusic, another performance by the present pianist, recorded at Schloss Husum in 2009 and reviewed previously in Fanfare 34:5 by Scott Noriega. This is the first full disc of piano music by Kornauth, a composer born in what is now Olomouc in the Czech Republic (and was then Olmütz) who studied with Robert Fuchs in Vienna and then later with Schreker and Franz Schmidt.
Jonathan Powell is one of the most eloquent commentators on the music he plays I have come across, whether that be Sorabji or Kornauth, and his booklet note is a source of great interest. The angular, active Fantasy (1915) contains distinctly Richard Straussian turns of harmony and phrase in the sweet contrasting themes (that influence is less obvious in the more Schwung sections); the overt lush Straussian gestures sound more like a reduction of an orchestral tone poem. The op. 25 Klavierstücke (1920) are more modernist, probably because of his experiences of Schreker. The first is decidedly Bergian (think the op. 1 Piano Sonata), while the central Improvisation sounds exactly like that. Most fascinating is the final “Walzer,” a very sprightly evocation of Viennese dance, a bit like an Austro-Germanic Ravel La Valse in places.
The Kleine Suite (1923) has fewer ambitions than the other works on the disc and receives another fantastic performance from Powell. The Barcarolle (third movement) sums the suite up in essence, reflecting the less demanding demeanor of the piece, while the penultimate “Walzer” elicits a phenomenally light touch from Powell before the cheekily scampering Finale rounds things off with a smile.
The Präludium und Passacaglia offers maximal contrast, the B?-Minor twilight of Bachian rigor and severity of the Prelude meeting the storm clouds of Chopin’s finest turbulence; the Passacaglia continues the gloominess. Powell paces it superbly: The close is truly crushing before the final surprise major-key end. The op. 44Klavierstücke of 1940 is also sometimes known as the Second Suite. It is shot through with sweet nostalgia. The five pieces (“Präludium”; “Intermezzo”; “Capriccio”; “Mährische Ballade”; “Walzer”) speak of sweet nostalgia. Powell lavishes them with an attention to detail that almost makes them sparkle (in a retrospective sort of way). The “Mährische Ballade” (Moravian Ballad) is the highlight. Its almost folkish mode of discourse hides a strong compositional rudder steering the work perfectly; the final “Walzer” is the suite’s longest movement, and drips with charm.
This is a fascinating disc (as we are beginning to expect from Toccata Classics). The recording (made at Durham University, U.K.) is excellent.’
FANFARE: Colin Clarke
‘Though he was for some years the toast of Vienna, Egon Kornauth was, like many an outstanding citizen of the Dual Monarchy, a Moravian. Born in Olomouc in 1891 he studied in that city before travelling to the Imperial capital to pursue composition first with Robert Fuchs and later with Schreker. He also studied musicology with Guido Adler. But it was only when he studied privately with Franz Schmidt that he seems to have found a teacher whom he felt truly sympathetic. Kornauth gradually rose to a position of some eminence in Vienna, where he lived until his death in 1959.
His piano music, of which this is the first volume (and all of which is heard in first recordings) proves highly diverting listening. The Phantasie of 1915 – the recital runs chronologically – is tightly constructed, indeed almost sonata-like. Opening restlessly it soon relaxes into a ‘second subject’ redolent of Richard Strauss at his most opulently operatic; all this allied to piano writing of post-Lisztian panache and turbulence. The other influence here is surely more Schmidt than Schreker, and though there is intensity, nowhere is Zemlinsky evoked. The Three Piano Pieces, Op.23 followed in 1920. The first is rather funereal, whilst the central piece, an ‘Improvisation’, is flowing and fluid, harmonically piquant without ever being quite à la mode. The waltz with which this little set ends shifts its moorings from time to time, rhythmically speaking, so one can’t always tell its origin.
A few years later Kornauth wrote his Little Suite, Op.29. The seven movements are very brief but well characterised. Whilst there are Mahlerian suggestions, pianist Jonathan Powell notes in the booklet that Kornauth may have imbibed some of the more Mediterranean spirit of Joseph Marx at this time in his development. Certainly the free-spirited, amply chorded fulsomeness of much of this suite is engaging. There’s light-heartedness too. That quality is necessarily in shorter supply in the Praeludium and Passacagliawritten many years later, in 1939. Here the fascinating feature resides in the commingling of Bachian and Chopinesque elements in the Praeludium’s ceaseless harmonic quest. The Passacaglia has its lighter textures but insidious pessimism haunts many of its paragraphs, before the work ends with a declamatory fanfare. Hopeful, ascending lines proclaim a promise for the future.
The following year Kornauth composed his Five Piano Pieces, Op.44. Brief though they are, they cover some interesting ground, from loquacious polyphony to fulsome diatonic writing in tribute to his native soil – a Moravian ballad, though characteristically he ploughs his own furrow and shows no sign of having heard Novák, who went foraging for folk songs in Kornauth’s neck of the woods, or indeed the Bohemian Suk.
All these pieces are brought thoughtfully and stylishly to life by Powell in performances given in the slightly chilly acoustic of Durham University Music School back in August 2008. They augur well for the next volume.’
MUSICWEB INTERNATIONAL: Jonathan Woolf
I’m currently nearing the end of learning process of Sorabji’s 6th Piano Symphony.
In November I’ll be playing the symphony several times in the US, ending up at Spectrum in NYC on 24th of the month. More details to follow!