REVIEW: Piano recital by Maria Marchant

Lion Ballroom, Leominster

Sunday, April 22

The faltering Spring, at last unleashed, launched a formidable force of nature upon Leominster in April - in the guise of a vibrant, green-clad goddess! A diminutive - but towering - lady sat at the piano before us and filled the room with her mighty spirit...

I've seldom encountered such virtuosity - brought into our lives in a frenzy - from where? From the hands, mind and soul of an outstanding pianist who, with her sunny and friendly personality, offered us a thoroughly entertaining afternoon experience. She obviously loved her repertoire, understood exactly her intentions and had, in spades, the prerequisite of any truly great performer - the confidence - to present her music in all its unending glory.

The opening Chaconne by Handel, with its fluent, rhythmically satisfying succession of variations, primed us admirably. Its sense of improvisation liberated my mind with layers of intricate sound progressing through their extreme dynamic range. Overwhelmed with the evocative vibrant echoes of that by-gone age, I was sustained, resplendently, to the spirited, vigorous end.

Next - Soirées Musicales (Opus 6) by Clara Schumann. How apt that this confident, capable composer, also a brilliant pianist, should 'share the stage' with such an assured, talented performer as Maria. Both distinctive individuals, the two women, two personae, complemented each other in an expressive' sisterly' rapport. The Notturno, Ballade and Polonaise (from a set of six composed in Clara's teenage years) covered, in melody, harmony, dark and light, all the emotions. These 'early' compositions by Clara preceded a 'late' Intermezzo (in E flat major - Opus 117 No. 1) by her friend Brahms. Its unearthly melody again showcased Maria's incredible technique - as was the case in the following 'Moonlight' Sonata by Beethoven. Many pianists, of varying accomplishment, can attempt a realisation of this well-loved piece - but not everyone 'nails' it! Maria performed the three movements with such poetry, grace and fury that ''this is the best I've ever heard it played'' was just one of many enthusiastic comments from the audience!

Three pieces by English composers (a Maria speciality) began the second half. John Ireland's beautiful 'Decorations' portrayed descriptive moods of 'The Island Spell', 'Moonglade' and 'The Scarlet Ceremonies' with a spectral perspicacity - tranquillity through to vigorous dynamism - before Ireland's most famous song 'Sea Fever' made an unusual appearance - as a piano solo transcribed by the distinguished singer and composer Roderick Williams. The words by poet John Masefield (who was born in Herefordshire) were thoughtfully supplied in the concert programme and helped augment my appreciation of the current piece. With intriguing developments and enhancements, Roderick succeeded in the dramatic intensification of Ireland's original tuneful masterpiece. I could 'feel' the frothy spray and 'smell' the salty, surging waves as Maria developed her 'nautical' theme through the diverse intensity and impressionistic atmosphere of Williams' 'Goodwood by the Sea' - a piece she herself had commissioned. Unfamiliar with this superb singer's compositions, I was struck by their sheer musicality, subtlety and expressiveness - only to be expected perhaps from a man so famous for his magnificent 'natural' baritone performances...

The concert ended, sorrowfully then stupendously, with two European 'greats'. Firstly, three of Schubert's sad last songs, 'Dwelling Place', 'By the Sea' and 'Message of Love' (from the song cycle Schwanengesang - 'Swan Song') as transcribed for solo piano by Liszt. Then Liszt's own Ballade No 2 in B minor. The sublime to the ... sublime! All were played with the immense skill and passion we'd come to expect from Maria. Schubertian heart-rending feeling transformed via the third less tragic piece into the polarised contrasts of Lisztian high drama. There were so many notes - played with such speed, gusto and power - that we were cliffhanging on the breath-taking edge of possibility! All was admirably accomplished with almost invisible fingers - a blur traversing the keys ... and what a spectacular feat of memory! Then, just to wind down, a delightful, light, hurdy-gurdy encore by Holst!

The piano survived and the roof miraculously remained attached despite what felt like a thunderbolt arriving from outer space! What could all this power conjure up in a larger venue where volume and some acoustic subtleties may be more easily controlled?

An impeccable vision of professional style, in a beautiful, vernal-green silk ball-gown, Maria created an almost other-worldly, timeless atmosphere and drew amazement, even shock, from the appreciative crowd. Yes - shock - and awe! Even with a large orchestra I would defy anyone to up-stage this charismatic lady - seemingly incapable of withholding an astonishing, almost mesmerizing, energy. A hundred - or even a thousand - would fail!

A 'lioness' had roared in the Lion Ballroom this afternoon. She displayed so many qualities - destined undoubtedly to blossom further with age and experience - and not only at the keyboard. In a clear, unfaltering stream, she introduced each piece with the keen appreciation of a connoisseur who generously and rightly assumes our intelligent and receptive interest. Here, in this attractive, welcoming venue, a charming musician of indubitable stature had 'added value' at every opportunity and won over an audience impelled, I'm sure, to seek her out in future... Not for nothing is she already recognised as a 'BBC Music Magazine Rising Star'...