Brighton Fringe 2019
Simon Ballard plays a wide-ranging repertoire centring on Schubert and a premiere of his own Toccata Scherzo Op 3.
Simon Ballard’s one of the best-known pianists on the south coast and by common consent the most distinguished. Now 72 his virtuosity is undiminished, as his capacity for learning new repertoire – like a rare outing of Saint-Seans’ wonderful and under-performed Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat, Op 29 performed in 2017 with the Sussex Symphony Orchestra. But there’s a strand I confess ignorance of: his own compositions. We’ll come to those.
Ballard’s known then for exploring British and European repertoire, and further afield. Smetena’s increasingly known as a piano composer, after several high-profile recordings, particularly of his Mazurkas and Polkas. This one in G minor perfectly exemplifies the post-Lisztian bonce (Smetena was dependent on Liszt for many things personally early on) and national tang – something he took forward.
Sydney Smith’s still famous in a way, for his literature, his bon mots, his heaven as ‘eating fois gras to the sound of trumpets.’ So what on earth is this Tarantelle Brilliante from the 1820s dong? I confess I had no idea the Smith of Smiths composed. The effect’s like superb piece of one of the minor post-Beethoven composers at top speed, someone like Kulkbrenner, Cramer, Hertz, even Spohr – or Ries, who features later. In its dance to stamp away the bite of the tarantula (Chopin’s is also exhilarating) it’s delicious, glinting, a silver trumpet in Ballard’s hands, filigree and filament-glowing at speed.
The heart of this first half, perhaps the recital, is core repertoire though Ballard reminds us it’s not played as much as it should be. These Three Piano Pieces D946 from 1828, Schubert’s last year, were published posthumously, and are remarkably unequal. Two faster movements flank a stunning twelve-minute meditation of desperate consolation, a tragic, infinitely sad and suffering thing, built up a=with a slow lander rhythm dropped out in several slow lyrical climaxes. Ballard plays it out never hurrying to make its full affect breathe. And the two movements, the ebullient first and the latter scurry in a strange major-keyed scampering-away from such profundity are consummately wrought, never scurrying sonically.
The second half featured Dvorak’s well-known Humoreske in F sharp, more quirky than his normal soundworld, and his ‘Question’ snuck in is both incredibly short and more reminiscent of Alkan. I’ve heard it only once and had forgotten it.
Ireland’s The Island Spell is an evocation of Guernsey, where he lived till evacuated in 1940 and this glinting tone poem is a substantial mediation on a brilliant slightly windswept day with glinting lights of the sea, and as ‘spell’ suggests, a revolve on a shifting harmony, somewhere round a tonal centre. Bewitching here.
Moszkoswki (1854-1921) famously rebutted composer great pianist and conductor Hans Von Bulow, pompous in his cups proclaiming: ‘Bach, Beethoven, Brahms; all the rest are cretins.’ ‘Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn and your humble servant Moszkoswki; all the rest are Christians!’ I’d love to have been present at that. His Complainte Op 87/1 isn’t as well known as his Fireworks or sparks Op 15 and some other pieces and is both more reflective and indeed revealing, like the slow movement of his wonderful Piano Concerto, now far better-known.
Severac (1863-1921) a contemporary of Debussy’s is famous for songs and some three CDs-worth of piano music. Return of the mule drivers though was new to me, and it’s memorable, ternary – in three sections – and full of syncopated orientalism, though discreetly done and never over-stated. He’s a minor French composer who’s being given more of his due, but I’d not really appreciated how much he needs. Ballard again pitches this just right, articulating the flurrying melodies, confident strettos and much else with a fine pin-pointillism.
Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) was Beethoven’s favourite and certainly best-known pupil (Czerny was another). WE owe many anecdotes to him. His own music again has been much revived and belongs t that generation cited above which includes Hummel, Field, Spohr and Weber. Some of his work a Piano Concerto, symphonies, piano trios and other chamber works are augmented by some few minor masterworks of the piano. This is one of them, a really wayward almost Beethovenian piece in form though not in tone or melodic substance ein the least. His Introduction and Polonaise Op 174 exists in piano and orchestra and solo piano versions which writes in the orchestra to an extent. It’s a twisty filigree dawning romantic work, full of th headlong Intro and tang of the Polonaise. In its twelve minutes it takes flight to several places and really needs hearing again. Its finale is exhilarating.
And finally… Ballard himself, or the Ballard of 1969 and a world premiere: his Toccata Scherzo Op 3. It’s now video’d and on the St Michael’s site. It’s a whirlwind with again a pointillistic sense of melody, a touch of British piano-composing Renaissance, York Bowen and particularly in one place a echo of Cyril Scott’s orientalism, and a few bars close to Holst’s Neptune. Even a touch of Gershwin and hint of Billy Mayerl but not perhaps more than a pinch: it’s more romantic though ebullient. But it sounds like no-one else not even Ballard’s older piano composing great contemporaries John McCabe or Richard Stoker. With a remarkably memorable opening and close the Toccata piece lopes through a touch-off of bravura and pace, working out the melody through a scherzo jokey speed, and through a more melting romanticism. But there’s nothing soft about it either. Resolutely tonal, it’s robust and vividly thought-out, in particular here in this remarkable premiere by the composer. An outstandingly fine recital.