St John’s, Smith Square, is one of London’s loveliest concert venues. A Baroque church, situated in the heart of Westminster, amongst government offices and ministerial departments, it boasts a fine acoustic, and is host to a varied programme of concerts throughout the year.

James Lisney © C Maeder
James Lisney
© C Maeder

This, the first of two concerts presented by pianist James Lisney to highlight the fiftieth anniversary of Amnesty International, featured solo piano works by Chopin and Schubert, and music for cello and piano by Chopin and Lutoslawski, played by Lisney’s daughter, Joy.

The Opus 62 Nocturnes, the last Chopin published in his lifetime (in 1846), are charming and mature works of intimate expressiveness. The first opens with a broken chord of ambiguous harmony before a gentle, singing main theme is introduced, decorated with trills and other ornaments (particularly in its reprise). A striking modulation introduces a more serious theme before the restatement of the opening melody. The Nocturne ends with a chorale-like motif of mezmerising harmonies hinted at earlier in the piece.

The second Nocturne is more stately, yet imbued with the same warmth as the first in its melodic line. The middle section is full of drama, but this tempest is quickly forgotten in the restatement of the opening melody.

Lisney is a sensitive Chopin-player, who, in his highlighting of the melodies in both Nocturnes, showed Chopin as the natural heir of Mozart. The first was played with a supple serenity, which caught the “other-worldliness” of this piece. In both, filigree ornaments, executed with a Mozartian delicacy, seemed to float, almost weightless, above the melodic line, while judicious pedaling and spare rubato (a slackening of tempo), allowed us to enjoy all the interior architecture of the music. Both were suffused with a poignant tenderness, though never sentimental.

Schubert’s G Major Sonata, D 894, is one of the most rarefied of his late sonatas, and, like the preceding Nocturnes, a work of great intimacy and serenity. There are storms, but these are short-lived, a cloud obscuring the sun momentarily, before the overall sense of peace and tranquility is restored.

Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter famously pushed the definition of the tempo marking in the opening movement to an extreme, playing it with a hypnotic slowness. Lisney opted for a more fluent speed, never rushing, but with a sense of the music moving forward with an elegant expansiveness. The first movement is built on two contrasting subjects, and Lisney was careful to highlight the change from the exaggerated “limping” measures of the first subject to a slow, lyrical waltz in the bass with delicate treble semiquaver tracery laid atop it.

The middle movements of the sonata retain the same serenity and spaciousness of the opening: an Andante second movement with a placid, cantabile melody, briefly interrupted by a sudden minor-key storm and thicker textures, and a Minuet and Trio which reminds us that Schubert was a composer of dances, in particular the Ländler, the peasant precursor of the waltz. The final rondo has a string quartet feel in the organization of textures and styles, and witty false cadences and adventurous harmonies in the middle section. Throughout, Lisney demonstrated a strong affinity for Schubert’s writing, with understated pedaling, graceful articulation, carefully nuanced shading and rhythmic vitality.

The second half began on a much more sombre note with Witold Lutoslawski’s Grave. Composed in 1981, and subtitled Metamorphoses, the music is haunting and powerful, built on a composed accelerando (speeding up of elements), rising in pitch from bass to soprano, with gathering momentum.

Joy Lisney, a first-year student at Clare College, Cambridge, may have only just entered adulthood, yet she plays with the sort of poise and authority a seasoned performer twice her age would envy. From the opening measures of the Lutoslawski, she was commanding, her deep involvement in this music evident in the articulate and passionate sounds she wrought from her instrument. This is intense and profound music, an unsettling cello line set against clusters of sound in the piano, played with an empathy and closeness by father and daughter.

This was even more apparent in Chopin’s Cello Sonata Op. 65, his last major work, dedicated to the cellist Auguste Franchomme. Rich, sweeping sonorities, a folksy and spirited scherzo, long-spun melodies, which harked back to the opening Nocturne, a swirling tarantella finale, here Joy demonstrated both her exceptional technique and deep understanding of this music. The piano part never dominated, but was an equal, sympathetic partner.

The applause for Joy’s striking talent was enthusiastic, and father and daughter returned to give a generous encore, the expressive Andante from Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor, opus 19.

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