A new piano festival, curated by Françoise Clerc at London's French Institute will, for some of us, have revived memories of Stephen Coombs' piano works at Blackheath in the '90s, an ambitious festival backed by Hyperion until the money ran out...
It's not "all" about Piano; nothing at the Institut Français was given on early pianos.
Steinway was a very prominent sponsor presence with a Steinway-C on the cinema stage. But this festival must not be confused with the established six-day Steinway Festival at Pizza Express, where they had "shoehorned two of its gleaming keyboard Rolls-Royces on to the tiny stage of Soho's Pizza Express Jazz Club" [The Guardian].
South Kensington is more central for attracting classically-minded audiences than Blackheath, and by the last day bookings had increased gratifyingly to a point where it was necessary to change venues for some events, with consequent disruption of the schedules. There was quite a buzz, with families and small children finding plenty to enjoy on the Sunday afternoon.
I heard a good selection of events in three venues, some of them overlapping. With a large French representation, there were several well equipped students from the Paris Conservatoire. Guillaume Vincent gave us a good Liszt sonata, but prefaced it unwisely with his own first ever performance of Alkan's sonatina, being hard put to find any 'music' in the flurry of prestidigitated notes. (His Rachmaninoff Preludes CD is better, and suitable for selling at gigs, but not competitive in so crowded a field). Matthieu Acar played Dédale by Bruno Mantovani (not to be confused with the popular conductor Mantovani, he of the saccharine strings...). Ferenc Vizi made a brave attempt at Falla's Fantasia Baetica on the small piano in the library, which was not really suitable for Mussorgsky.
The main recitals were given in the splendid, luxurious Ciné Lumière, where some choice specialist films were screened.
Karol Beffa improvised a piano accompaniment to Au Bonheur des Dames (1930), and Pianomania is an extensive 93 mins celebration of the skills of Steinway technician Stefan Knüpfer, followed around trying to satisfy the requirements of top pianists...
The fine new film of Poulenc's mono-opera La Voix Humaine celebrates Felicity Lott in advancing years losing her lover on the telephone. Simple, and all on one small set, its presentation was a world première launch by one of the smaller CD companies of their first DVD, in Jean Cocteau's original French.
The greatest events in the weekend for us were recitals by Anne Quéffelec and the great Cyprien Katsaris.
Anne Queffèlec began by introducing her programme, an uninterruped calming sequence of small, mostly quiet pieces by Satie to Koechlin, given in total cinema darkness; many of us will have got lost as to which was whose.
It was great to have Cyprien Katsaris to set a benchmark of quality on the whole festival. A rare visitor to Great Britain, he recalled his recital at the Purcell Room 40 years ago with a miniature Purcell suite pulled out of his library a couple of days before and played from the music (rare for a pianist with a prodigious memory).
There were no winners in a quiz to identify pieces by Rousseau and Nietsche (!), so the prizes of CDs from his own label Piano21 went to a couple of ladies in the front row...
His little encore was the whole of Liszt's 2nd concerto in Katsaris' own arrangement for solo piano...
A long long queue for CD signings before I was able to have a few words with Cyprien.
There were more than 2300 attendees which has encouraged Institut Français to plan another festival for next year, by which time lessons will doubtless have been learned. Perhaps they'll reconsider the no photography rule, out-dated now that modern cameras are silent and flash never needs to be used in concerts...
Peter Grahame Woolf