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A cracker of a performance

a review by Julia Meredith

Alexandra Dariescu is a woman on a mission. Whatever she embraces – gender equality in her programming, showcasing lesser-known works, enthusing an audience on a chilly March evening – she does with 100% enthusiasm, which is utterly infectious. She has earned the right to be excited. Her remarkable talent as a pianist has brought her performances with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre National de France, Oslo Philharmonic and Sydney Symphonic Orchestra, and this year will be opening with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican.
In short, Guernsey was very lucky to have a chance to experience her playing at our own St James; but part of her charm is the impression she gives that she’s so lucky to be sharing her favourite music with us.
Perhaps to honour a composer from her native Romania, she opened with Enescu’s Suite No 1, gravely beautiful and introspective. Carl Filtsch’s Mazurka which followed, was a liquid, playful dance, unashamedly appealing salon music.
From Germaine Tailleferre, female French composer and friend of Ravel, we heard Pastorale, her lyrical but unsettling work of unfamiliar harmonies that followed its own internal logic. Then Tudor Ciortea, also Romanian, offered a vibrant celebration of Folk influences.
Written when she was only 21, in 1914, Lili Boulanger’s Prelude and Trois Morceaux, gives us a captivating taste of what she might have achieved had she lived beyond the age of 24. D’un Vieux Jardin suggests a once beautiful garden made strange by night and neglect. D’un Jardin Clair builds on the serene wildness of being in Nature, whose rhythms don’t operate as our do – a sappy slow-motion flow of growth.
Cortege is one of Boulanger’s better-known works. Despite the title, there is nothing funereal about it: it swirls and teases like a summer wind, urging us onwards, a procession of freed spirits relishing their release.
The big work of the first half fell to Chopin. Andante Spianato is all sweetness and fluency, exquisite embellishments effortlessly tickling us with their ear-candy allure… until they segue into a passage that feels like the telling of a simple, sincere truth, slipped between the pretty ornaments.
His Grande Polonaise purposefully commands our full attention from the off. The pace and mercurial switches of mood require virtuosic technique – and wow, did the lady in the iridescent turquoise frock rise to whatever Chopin demanded of her.
Her ability to skitter across the keyboard in a blur of speed, seeming to brush each note with the kiss of a soap bubble, and seconds later to invest her slight upper body with enough heavyweight magisterial power to achieve the Steinway’s most dominant fortissimo – all at breakneck speed and note perfect – demonstrated rigorous control,
both of herself and the instrument. Iron self-discipline is critical to avoid things going horribly wrong – yet at the end, her delight conveyed not understandable relief, but a playful glee at having taken us through this merry dance for the sheer fun of it.
When she reappeared after interval in shimmering gold, perhaps to reflect the festive glitter of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, it was as though for this most visually decorative of works she couldn’t resist dressing the part. The scene was set to sparkle.
These arrangements are, as the programme wrote, ‘a testament to the transformative power of interpretation and transcription… a marvel of musical ingenuity.’ As the heroine Clara says, ‘Nothing would have happened had she not dared to dream’.
I must come clean and admit that I’ve heard Nutcracker too often to have been expecting anything new from an old chestnut… my apologies. This was dazzling, both familiar and original. I was held completely in the moment by her ability to conjure up not just an entire orchestra but a corps de ballet too. The visual pageant is so clearly front and centre of her mind, as her hands deftly describe what her half-closed eyes are seeing (no music throughout) – we are persuaded. Each individual transcription could be danced to, so completely does it capture the spirit of the ballet and Tchaikovsky’s original score.
There are certain musicians you fall in love with because their love of performing is matched by their love of the audience …and an empathetic belief that we all share these moments of fragile bliss. This for me described Alexandra Dariescu. It felt as if she got out as much as she put in – and she was absolutely unsparing of herself. The piano for her seems to be both her grand passion and her playground, and we are invited into her joyous world.
This, the most recent concert in the inspirational Fanny Davies International Piano Series, was brought to us again by Guernsey Arts and The Swallow 2018 Charitable Trust. Don’t miss hearing the next one: Guernsey-born Tom Hicks, briefly back from his music career in the States to play for us on Wednesday 5th June.
Julia Meredith

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