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Brighton Year-Round 2023

Neil Crossland Piano Recital

Neil Crossland

Genre: Live Music

Venue: Unitarian Church, New Road Brighton


Low Down

Neil Crossland’s piano recital at the Unitarian Church, New Road Brighton is on another level. A programme of a Kuhlau Sonatina, Chopin late Polonaises, transcriptions of two Rachmaninov songs, a transcription of Mussorgski’s Night on a Bare Mountain; and encore by Manuel Ponce.


Even for a distinguished roster, this is a special concert. Neil Crossland’s piano recital at the Unitarian Church, New Road Brighton is on another level. A programme of a Kuhlau Sonatina, Chopin late Polonaises, transcriptions of two Rachmaninov songs, a transcription of Mussorgski’s Night on a Bare Mountain; and encore by Manuel Ponce.

Known as a composer – many compositions are listed in the programme – Crossland’s also a prolific recording artist. CDs of his Beethoven Sonata cycle and Liszt were on sale.

Crossland’s skill as composer/transcriber was on display later. What we had first was by way of a classical preface. Usually involving a Haydn or even Mozart Sonata – or Scarlatti Sonata, in the tradition of a Russian recital – this turned out to be more intriguing.

Friedrich Kuhlau (1786-1832) was a Danish-based German-born composer, contemporary of that in-between generation of composers born between Beethoven and Schubert: Johann Nepomuk Hummel, John Field, Ludwig Spohr, Friedrich Kalkbrenner and exactly, Weber. Kuhlau’s Sonatina in A minor Op 88/3, like his contemporaries glitters with a more expressive late-classical palate, but subdued to the seriousness of its key.

Crosland’s consummate in this. It’s only later too you realise how he terraces his performances, restrains his palette, his volume and technique in dealing with early-Romantic, as opposed to full-blown disinhibition: that comes with his late-romantic transcriptions.

So it’s more artificial, slightly inflected with Beethoven but not owned by him, moving into the virtuoso era. The Sonatina is tightly exploratory, darkly bright with filigree, less a purely virtuoso display than a work of miniature mastery. There’s more of CPE Bach’s way of thinking here than say Mozart’s or Haydn’s. More wistful fantasy, and sentiment, if without Bach’s driving exploratory language. The outer movements bustle, the central andante owns a spiky warmth and a real cantabile.  Though we hear his flute compositions, Kuhlau is underrated.

As Crossland informed us, Chopin’s late opuses after his Cello Sonata Op 65 were all posthumously-published, often early or rejected. So the two Op 71 Polonaises are brief, not the magnificent neighing rearings-up of the Military Op 40 or Heroic Op 53. They’re not very long either.

But the first of these in D minor, does seem to presage the Tragic Op 26 Polonaise. Perhaps reflecting the 1830 revolutions, or just a melancholic vein – minor keys and Polonaises aren’t a given thing – this work seems like a study for the Tragic, itself in the more remote key of E flat minor. But its D minor inhabits its own dark. Less expressive of E flat minor grieving, more a private dark expressed in the generalised (D minor) tragic mode. It deserves more of an outing.

Its companion the B flat major is a lighter, more delicate piece, sort of half-way towards the more experimental, originally populist but in Chopin’s hands far more radical Mazurkas. There’s still the aristocratic Polonaise rhythm, but it’s a perhaps less overtly nationalist assertion; more the world of the ballroom. Perhaps an assertive middle-class one. Crossland’s delicacy fines down from even the D minor’s small intensity.

His own transcriptions of two Rachmaninov songs followed. There’s real chutzpah here: Rachmaninov himself was a famous transcriber but didn’t transcribe (unlike Liszt that all-time god of transcribers) his own songs. Crossland obliges.

The early (Op 4/4 suggests about 1893, when Rachmaninov was 20) ‘Oh Never sing to me again’ is justly famous, and Crossland makes of it an appropriately expressive thing of several voices. The original piano part thrubs magnificently, but threaded through with the vocal line. It sounds as if Rachmaninov had transcribed it. It’s a memorable song. ‘How fair this place’ Op 21/7 (so about 1902) is less known to me, and in its quiet swirl evoking fields quite compelling. It’s difficult to catch too, spins to vanishing-point. Its these two I’d love to hear again.

Amy Beach (1858-1944) is now far better-known than she was, indeed the best-known of the Boston school of composers. It’s taken an age to see her Gaelic symphony Piano Concerto, and magnificent Piano Quintet receive multiple performances and recordings. As well as her songs and above all, piano music. Beach, forbidden to concertize by her much older husband from 18, was encouraged to compose. After 1910 when he died, she did both. Beah’s late-romantic language is quite layered, with some startling, if modest, modernities later on. She continued to develop through the 1930s even 1940s, ending on the McDowell colony she helped establish.

These Four Sketches Op 15, the last omitted here, are quite early works (1892); but there’s a density, a thew of melodic refraction, not present in her major Liszt-taught contemporary Edward McDowell (whose wife gave her name to that colony). ‘In Autumn’ is a rippling work, evoking redwood forests and the more genteel world of New England. But it’s an impelling introduction to the following ‘Phantoms’. As that might suggest, there’s more a sense of feelings than unearthly spirits wafting along here. Or happy ghosts, recalling trysts in mid-19th century ballrooms perhaps. There’s a lilt and warmth, not chill to this work. Finally ‘Dreaming’ is more rapt, slowing to a multi-stranded loosening of themes as they ripple in Crossland’s hands.

We come to the grand finale. Mussorgski’s Night on a Bare Mountain was re-orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, whose own glittering version has again displaced the re-assertion of Mussorgsky’s own, which Shostakovich championed, enjoying a vogue in the 1980s and 1990s. Well you know which Crossland’s drawn to. In addition he informed us he wanted to follow Vladimir Horowitz’s version of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2. Right. In Simon Barere/Gyorgy Cziffra blowtorch fashion too perhaps.

But of course Crossland’s a composer: what he gives us is the gleaming palette of Rimsky’s orchestration with the tessitura-like filigree of Horowitz’s Liszt. That’s without losing anything of Mussorgski’s power, best expressed in the bass-notes and through-line of the melody – plenty of Boris Godunov-like tollings and bass-baritonal palette here, as in all Mussorgski. But Crossland makes you recognize Mussorgski’s bass-lines as never before. It makes you rethink the work. That’s as you thrill to its leaping power, through the sheer polyphony of Crossland’s hands, the orchestral textures of his thundering.

Now all the time Crossland’s been playing a church-installed baby grand. Of course Kuhlau sounds natural here, the tinkle and occasional boom sounds proportioned. What’s remarkable is the sounds Crossland elicits from this relatively modest grand in the Mussorgski. One sign of a great pianist is what tone s/he might conjure from a modest piano.

There was even after that, an encore by Mexican Manuel Ponce (1882-1948), known for his larger-scale orchestral compositions, and vast amount of guitar music, a cornerstone of the repertoire. This piece, the Cuban Serenade, is both memorable, in a lilt of habanera rhythm, and presages other pieces. It’s a cleansing palate, a gentle coming-down, while still complex enough to satisfy after such voices we’ve just heard.

This is the point to add Crossland’s completions of the incomplete Schubert Piano Sonatas –  there’s 21 Sonatas in all – are eagerly awaited. They’ve already been completed and recorded on a deleted EMI Eminence box set by Cypriot tyro Martino Tirimo. Make no mistake, these new versions with different development sections will be revelatory. Crossland’s traversal of the mesmerisingly beautiful F minor D571, finer than several later works, is already available.

Not withstanding the very minor limitations of the baby grand, an outstanding recital in a little room. It’d be worth queuing for Crossland next time.