Review: Recitals at St John’s Church, Peterborough

Pianist Christina McMaster.
Pianist Christina McMaster.

Christina McMaster (piano), 1pm, 1 August

Elizabeth and John Arkell (organ), 1pm 8 August

St John’s Peterborough

Christina McMaster’s superb piano recital at St John’s Peterborough was a bit like an assault on two mountain peaks. Leaving the lower hills to the less adventurous Christina boldly set out to reach the summit, successfully attempting some of the most difficult and demanding works ever written for the instrument.

Taking her seat at the Steinway grand she exuded the kind of smiling confidence that only comes with hundreds of hours of practice and preparation. The two works by Claude Debussy and Robert Schumann were both sets of studies but with little in common except their titles and their ferocious difficulty. In fact Debussy described his 12 Etudes as ‘a warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands.’

Undeterred Christina McMaster performed three of these finger-breaking pieces with apparent ease displaying the utmost dexterity and virtuosity. Like many of the best studies written for piano Debussy’s are not merely technical exercises, though they do start with a tongue-in-cheek reference to beginner pianists.

Earlier Christina had given a rousing performance of Schumann’s Symphonic Studies. Not only fiendishly difficult these short pieces also provide a glimpse into the composer’s highly idiosyncratic world. Peopled with both imaginary figures like Eusebius and Florestan, and real people like Schumann’s friend William Sterndale Bennett, and ex-girlfriend Ernestine von Fricken.

As with the Debussy pieces Christina coped nobly with the rigorous demands of Schumann’s score, always bringing out the melody despite the busy textures. Right hand octaves, left hand trills, and scintillating arpeggios, were features of the earlier studies. But it was Christina’s performance of the gung-ho finale that took the audience’s breath away.

A week later Elizabeth and John Arkell contributed more keyboard music, this time on the St John’s organ and with four hands rather than two. I’ve mentioned before the obvious drawback of organ recitals where players are unavoidably hidden from view. But on this occasion the recital was given not so much by an invisible man as an invisible couple!

Nevertheless this was a well-planned, well-executed and thoroughly enjoyable concert, starting with the solemn counterpoint of Thomas Tomkins’ Fancy for Two. It was soon followed by the main work on the programme, a hefty Duet by Samuel Wesley. Though a contemporary of Beethoven Wesley seems to anticipate the features of Victorian music in this substantial and occasionally martial piece.

Elizabeth and John continued with John Rutter’s ravishing Variations on an Easter Theme. Here the contemporary composer decorates a medieval melody with all kinds of magical organ sonorities creating an atmosphere of gothic mystery.