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Review: from Mozart to Bernstein - Ryan Drucker's piano recital at St Peter's Church

Pianist Ryan Drucker performed the latest recital in the Saint Peter’s Brilliant Young Musicians series (Sunday, March 17). Ryan graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music with a first class degree and was awarded the Alfred Clay Scholarship with the highest mark in an undergraduate recital. He is currently pursuing postgraduate studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. 

First performing at the Wigmore Hall when he was 16, Ryan has played at many respected concert venues in Europe and North America.  He opened this wide-ranging recital with the well-known Mozart Piano Sonata K332. It is a work expressing a variety of moods. 

The allegro opens with a gentle theme played with elegance and sensitivity, contrasting  with the darker and more agitated moments played in the left hand.  The lovely second movement - said to be one of the most lyrical Mozart wrote - is characterised by changes from the major to the minor key, adding, yet again, a hint of anguish to the movement, which Ryan exploited very successfully. 

Any poignancy is abandoned in the final movement - a rollicking allegro, hugely energetic with a relentless round of fast flourishes to test the performer. It was beautifully played, Ryan bringing out the subtle variations in emotion which characterize the whole piece. 

This was followed by a complete contrast - Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Choral et Fugue.  Belgian-born Franck (1882-1890) deserves more of a reputation than he receives today. He was a fine pianist and an awesome organist, being the organist at Saint Clothilde in Paris from its construction to his death. 

As a composer his output was never great, his Violin Sonata remains popular, while to vocalists his ‘soupy’ Panis Angelicus remains a popular church anthem - especially for weddings. 

The Prelude, Choral et Fugue is a neglected masterpiece, a work rightly promoted by Ryan.   The work opens with a simple five note motif which rises above a rippling texture, played so delicately that it seemed ethereal. This gives way to a gentle chorale, a steady march like- progression of rich chords, with a ‘growling’ left hand relentlessly providing a depth and sonority to the work as if a solemn procession were passing by. 

The rich octaves played in the left hand are very reminiscent of 16 ft. pedal notes on the organ - Franck’s familiar musical instrument.  This then gives way to an immense and chromatic fugue of great complexity, the simple fugue theme highlighted above a rippling accompaniment until the work ends with a series of chords reminiscent of a peal of church bells. 

What would Bach have made of it all?  We were impressed, not only with a work that was unfamiliar, but with the breath-taking dexterity with which it was played. Ryan captured the solemnity of the work, but also explored the diversity of technique required, especially in producing the shimmering accompaniment. Ryan really was ‘at one’ with the work. 

After the interval Ryan began with Leonard Bernstein’s Touches written in 1981.  Born in 1918 Bernstein is described as ‘one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.’ For many years he was the principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. 

He will for ever be remembered as the composer of West Side Story and, in Great Britain at least, of the Chichester Psalms.  Touches is a short chorale based on some unusual intervals.  The chorale theme is elaborated in a series of eight variations based on both contemporary classical and jazz intervals. They are hugely varied in mood and very difficult to play. 

The work finished with a restatement of the theme with the final chords dying to nothing, the instruction over the last note ‘very long’.  It was so long that it was only with the opening bars of the first Chopin Nocturne that we realised that the Bernstein had finished! The playing was magnificent, technically robust and the interpretation very powerful. 

With the Chopin we were on more familiar ground, two late Nocturnes, Opus 62, written towards the end of his short life.  They are serene pieces, lyrical to the point of poignancy and played with immense tenderness with each note coaxed into life. The second is more solemn with a turbulent middle section, ending with  a tiny coda like some wistful sigh.  Could this be a resigned acceptance of the composer’s impending death? 

Four short Etudes by Rachmaninov completed the programme - very different indeed from the Chopin. Originally called Etudes-Tableaux when first published in 1917, each was to be accompanied by a descriptive title. No 2 was to have the title ‘The Sea and Seagulls’ for example. In the end Rachmaninov dropped the idea and we are left to create our own visual interpretation. 

They are very varied and very virtuosic. No 1 is dark in mood with wild cascades of notes like waves crashing against the cliffs. No 2 is more gentle with triplets continuously rolling away in the left hand. No 8  is quieter, a gentle ebbing and flowing in the left hand with an austere melody - a musical ‘narrative’ - picked out by the right. 

No 9 is hugely dramatic. From the crashing chords at the outset and with its syncopated rhythmic pulse, this is full of life and vigour with an overall purposefulness from beginning to end. There was such variety in these four works, so effectively teased out by Ryan, and what a triumphant finish. 

It was a lovely concert. The choice of music was very varied and included works that were, I suspect, new to the loyal, discerning and deeply appreciative audience.  Ryan’s brief introduction to the pieces was appropriate and certainly helped create an intimacy  between audience and soloist. 

The next Brilliant Young Musicians recital at St Peter's Church is on Sunday, 14 April with Joanna Ly (violin) and Martin André (piano).

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