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REVIEW: Thomas Nickell at Orchestra of the Swan

17-year-old virtuoso pianist Thomas Nickell
17-year-old virtuoso pianist Thomas Nickell

Peter Buckroyd reviews the Thomas Nickell Concert at Orchestra of the Swan, Stratford ArtsHouse, Sunday, 10th July

Introducing the concert Conductor David Curtis described the first item, Steve Martland’s adaptation for strings of JS Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor, as ‘Bach but not as we know it’. It isn’t Bach at all and this arrangement for strings doesn’t do justice to the original organ work. It consists predominantly of unison forte playing of big chords. It’s a noisy piece. The lower strings were impeccable, even if what they had to play was galumphing. Less so the first violins.

Mercifully the real Bach appeared in Concerto No 1 in D-minor where the orchestra was heard to much better effect as their playing was more subtle with deft phrasing and well-judged dynamic variation. Thomas Nickell’s playing was rather surprisingly unflashy with meticulous attention to key pressure and the creation of subtle melodic lines. Nickell is already a master of suspensions straightforward ornamentation and deft staccato enunciation. His attention to detail was such that this was a true concerto: a conversation between piano and orchestra, beautifully and often subtly balanced.

By the time of Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge the first violins were fully awake. Their unison playing here was of a different order from at the beginning of the evening. Curtis maintained forward movement throughout the piece. The delight of this work is that you never quite know what is going to happen after the first few bars of each variation as Britten plays with a range of transitions and resolutions in each movement: sometimes harmonic, sometimes rhythmical, sometimes tonal.

The most interesting part of the concert was the world premiere of David Matthews’s Piano Concerto, a piece which, like the Bach, achieves the desired concerto interplay of conversation between piano and strings. Nickell’s virtuoso skills were fully in evidence here in the subdued melodies of the first movement, the exuberance of the second movement’s tango, and the steamy harmonies of the slow movement where the prevailing mood of brooding is intermittently and briefly broken by the piano’s attempts to escape into lyricism. The composer described the last movement as ‘deliberately light-hearted’ but I found that the piano’s attempts to break out of the pessimistic melancholy of the slow movement into passages of resigned lyricism before being engulfed by manic activity more interesting than merely ‘light-hearted’. And the abrupt ending left the contrasting moods of the piece tantalisingly unresolved.

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