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Review: A piano virtuoso performs in Harrow

Warren Mailley-Smith (piano) opened The Church of St. John the Baptist’s 47th lunchtime music concert season, on Thursday 22 September 2022, at 12:30 p.m. . The first piece on the programme was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 (“Waldstein”).

I’m afraid that I must say I found the interpretation of the first movement (Allegro con Brio) of this famous Sonata a little disappointing. Mr Mailley-Smith, a pianist with an excellent reputation, seemed to me – at first – to be a little unsettled. Perhaps it was that he seemed (according to the announcement made by the concert series’ organiser, Mr Simon Patrick) to have had a last minute problem with parking at the church – which delayed a little his arrival to take the stage (which is never ideal for any performer, just before a concert) – or perhaps it was something else entirely. In any case, I felt that the first movement sounded a little rushed, and the notes in the fast passages did not sound clear and distinct enough in the acoustic of the church, to which I felt that he did not adapt quickly enough for this piece. The technical control was fully there, and very impressively so; however, I did feel that the dynamic range suffered, and the musical lines were – as a result – a little monochrome; especially in a movement that begs for dynamic contrast.

Perhaps he hadn’t warmed up properly, just yet? The second movement (Introduzione; Adagio Molto) was more communicative, but Mr Mailley-Smith seemed, nevertheless, a little distant from the music, seemingly preferring a more cerebral approach to a more visceral one. It is true that this movement is an introverted one; I nevertheless would have personally preferred more inner warmth, to draw the listener in. By the third movement (Rondo: Allegretto moderato – Prestissimo), however, Mr Mailley-Smith seemed much more settled, and this, of course, showed in the performance. The beautiful melodic lines were well brought out through his playing, with (for me) exactly the sense of spaciousness that they need. In the trill accompaniment passages, especially (with those C major scales in the left hand), these solo lines were particularly stunning, with great colours and nuanced timbres, and with the right amount of emphasis and feeling of space.

The second piece on the programme was Chopin’s Souvenir de Paganini, a piece based on “Carnival of Venice”, a popular Italian tune which Chopin heard the famous 19th century virtuoso violinist Niccolo’ Paganini perform whilst touring Chopin’s native Poland. This piece is virtuosic candy for the listener, and Mr Mailley-Smith did it justice, with a clear tone quality, beautifully nuanced … and with truly impressive technical command. The first half of the concert ended with another Chopin piece, the famous Waltz in D flat major, Op. 64, No. 1, the “Minute Waltz” – so named because of its “miniature” nature. Mr Mailley-Smith here (once more) placed his emphasis on the technical aspect of the piece, which he carried off with ease.

Review: A piano virtuoso performs in Harrow Harrow Online

After the interval, we were treated to a performance of Mozart’s Sonata No. 12 in F Major, KV 332. The first movement, Allegro, showcased Mr Mailley-Smith’s limpid, clear tone, whilst the second, the Adagio, had wonderfully communicative long lines, with nuanced colours and plenty of light and shade in his playing. His phrasing, in particular, was truly stunning, at times. I felt that he chose to verge a little on the Romantic side of interpretation, at times, here; this is, however, fully his own stylistic and interpretative choice to make – and, in its own way, it did work, musically speaking. The third and last movement, Allegro assai, I also very much enjoyed hearing.

Fruhlingsnacht (Spring Night), S. 568, by Liszt, was next. This piece is a transcription of a Lied by Robert Schumann, the final one in his Song Cycle, Op. 39. Mr Mailley-Smith’s performance here was characterised once more, I felt, by beautiful colours and dynamics in his playing. Indeed, his Chopin and Liszt, throughout this concert, were some of its highlights … I had to wonder to myself if this is where he may feel most at home, musically speaking.

The penultimate piece of the concert was Brahms’s Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2. This, for me, was another highlight; stylistically impeccable, with movingly played melodies and, once more, beautifully nuanced. This was wonderfully warm playing, and, I felt, truly showcased Mr Mailley-Smith’s playing in its best light. It felt to me that (for much of the concert, in any case) Mr Mailley-Smith had performed well within his comfort zone; this was a gear above the rest. The final piece was another piece by Brahms, his Rhapsody in G minor, Op. 79, No. 2. Everything fell into its correct place here, so to speak, with Mr Mailley-Smith giving us an excellent finale to his Harrow lunchtime concert. It was a concert that I felt got better and better, and which provided us with some beautiful musical moments, giving us many glimpses into what Mr Mailley-Smith’s piano playing is truly capable of. I therefore look forward to hearing him perform again.