Fantasia, fantasy, fancy – call it what you like, the genre has a special place in music. Its roots are in the music of British Renaissance composers, when it began as the transference of choral writing techniques to instruments such as the keyboard and lute. Presumably composers such as Byrd couldn’t resist adding in improvisatory passages showing off the qualities of the instrument and, who knows, perhaps their own talents too. Thus a genre of music unfettered by strict form, allowing the composers imagination to run free, was born.

Mishka Rushdie Momen
© Benjamin Ealovega

Pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen is obviously particularly attracted to the fantasia and, it has to be said, she has a talent for it. Her whole programme in Sheffield consisted of fantasias and fantasia-like pieces, with one exception. The Prelude in C from Book One of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier might fit, and Momen did give it a delicate, dreamy quality. But the Fugue? Absolutely not, obviously. Nevertheless, Momen wove the strictly tailored tapestry of voices together beautifully.

Momen described Mozart’s Fantasia for Piano in C minor as operatic, and so was her performance. Thundering dramatically, or singing delicately, it was a captivating story. She followed this with Schumann’s Impromptus on a Theme by Clara Wieck. It’s almost a set of improvised variations, and Momen reveled in the atmosphere of free-flowing emotion.

There’s a big however here though: formless music with an improvisatory feel can sound aimless after a while. Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives is a set of 20 miniatures with a beguiling sound-world, accurately reproduced by Momen, but little connectivity. You can let go of your musical intellect to immerse yourself in it or be restless. It’s a matter of taste.

After the interval there was another actual Fantasia – Byrd’s in A minor. Not the composer’s original sound-world when played on the piano, but reinterpretations can be enchanting. This one was, particularly in Momen’s playing of the improvisatory passages. It sounded as if Byrd could almost have been the piano-hero of his day. György Ligeti’s Etude no. 10 is another piece that taxes the patience. Again, it’s a matter of taste, but at least Momen’s fleet-fingered brilliance was visually entertaining.

Schubert’s Fantasia in C major "Wanderer Fantasy" is more along the lines of a Beethovenian 'sonata quasi una fantasia'. The four-movement masterpiece didn’t only make Momen’s exploration of the fantasy a fulfilling evening’s entertainment, but her ability to swap from gripping muscular power to graceful tenderness showed why she has won such acclaim in the last two years.