In the last concert of the season at Sutton House, Penelope Roskell, acclaimed British pianist and Professor of Piano and Piano pedagogy at London's Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, juxtaposed the reason and intellect of Bach with the mercurial romance of Schumann in a fascinating and very well-attended concert.

© Dan Brady
© Dan Brady

Sutton House is truly one of London’s ‘hidden gems’. A Tudor house on Homerton High Street in East London, it retains many of its original features. Concerts, hosted by Sutton House Music Society (of which Penelope is Artistic Director), take place in the relaxed and friendly Wenlock Barn, and interval drinks, and, on this occasion, strawberries and cream, are served in the pretty courtyard.

The recital opened with Bach’s extravagant and virtuosic Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. A large piece, sprawling and emotional, it is one of Bach’s best known works, and demonstrates the forward pull of Bach’s musical vision, with its bold harmonic structure and three alternating sections of differently textured music. The first section is a true prelude with toccata-like swirling passage work to which Penelope brought both theatricality and lightness of touch with crisp articulation and spare pedalling. The recitative-like middle section was mannered, almost serene by contrast, while the fugue, which begins in a strict style before gradually loosening, contained bravura passage work and a strong sense of the music driving forward, virtuosic to the end. Here, Penelope was careful to highlight every melodic line and voice, bringing a wonderful chorale-like quality to the work, and accentuating all the interior architecture of the music.

The first ‘romance’ of the evening came with Schumann’s ‘Papillons’, written when he was just 20. A suite of miniature dance pieces, it draws its inspiration from Schubert’s waltzes and four-handed polonaises, and looks forward to later suites such as ‘Carnaval’. It is a shifting musical landscape with its rapid changes of mood, dynamics and tempo. After a grand introductory figure, not unlike the opening of Chopin’s First Ballade, Penelope afforded each contrasting movement the appropriate measure of weight, strength, delicacy, warmth, wit, humour and colour, highlighting the full range of Schumann’s moods, and his twin personas Eusebius (passionate, flamboyant, impulsive) and Florestan (dreamy, poetic, controlled).

The first half closed with the aristocratic and elegant French Suite in C minor, related to ‘Papillons’ with its contrasting dance movements, while showing Bach at his most serious and measured. Understated pedalling, attention to the melodic lines and 'voices', and crystalline articulation coupled with subtle ‘rubato’ were very much in evidence, here, and in the G Major Partita, which opened the second half.

The final piece of the concert, Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in G minor, mirrored the opening Bach. Its first and final movements are dare-devil and virtuosic, full of grand gestures, and relentless forward-motion, while the gently rolling Andantino second movement is one of the most charming Schumann wrote. It was played with great serenity and lyricism, while the little Scherzo, all of 64 bars, was witty and snappy. The final movement reflected the textures and flourishes of the opening Fantasia in its first theme, before shifting into a more supple, lyrical second subject. The ending was sparkling and electric, with its prestissimo passage marked ‘Quasi cadenza” (“like a cadenza”).

The encore went to Bach: the first Prelude of the ‘Forty-Eight’, played with a rare grace and simplicity.

Reason and RomanceThe reason and intellect of Bach juxtaposed with the mercurial romance of Schumann in a fascinating recital by pianist Penelope Roskell5