a review by Julia Meredith
St James had a greater-than-usual buzz of anticipation as we settled down for this most recent concert in the Fanny Davies piano series. We were waiting to hear one of Guernsey’s own, a product of the Music Service who left to achieve distinction at the Royal Northern College and Royal Academy of Music and went on to conduct five US orchestras, run a music school in Pennsylvania, perform at Carnegie Hall, Bridgewater Hall, the Barbican and St Mark’s Venice – besides winning a grand-piano-ful of international prizes. So, no pressure!
The truth is, when it comes to music, Guernsey is not comparable to a provincial town of 60 000 people. Thanks to the Guernsey Music Service and high levels of participation in orchestras, chamber groups, bands and choirs, islanders are far more likely to have a lively critical appreciation of performance. In short, high expectations. For all his previous successes, who could blame Sebastian Grand for feeling just a little daunted as he stepped onto the stage, in front of all those people who’d known him since he could barely span an octave?
If this were so, you’d never have guessed. He spoke from the stage with warmth and authority, recognizing Guernsey’s great good fortune in having this world-class venue, and praising his teachers (including his father) for their part in his achievements. And then he sat down to play.
The Four Schubert Impromptus, D899, are lyrical, melancholy and passionate. Deceptively simple, they expand into surges of excitement, inventive key changes and great demands on the performer, emotionally and technically. They are all the more poignant when you know they were written the year Schubert died – shockingly he was only 31. Sebastian seems to feel his way under the skin of the music, almost wincing in empathy with such heartfelt expression.
It struck me how, for a deeply private person (such is my impression), there is great vulnerability in carrying the truth of the music across to the audience: to do it justice, you must approach it defencelessly. The challenge of reconciling heart and head, feeling and fingerwork, is not always met. In Sebastian’s restrained but eloquent playing, that conflict between sweet persuasion and relentless torment, delicacy masking anguish and denial, was perfectly poised.
The time it took for the audience to ‘come back to earth’ before the applause started, showed to me how that rare ability to share the composer’s inner vision had dissolved the wall between performer and audience. I found it mesmerising.
Chopin’s Scherzo no.2,p.31 is one of the big beasts of the piano repertoire. It must combine virtuosic proficiency and emotional intensity, often delivered at breakneck speed. After the fury of the opening sequence, Sebastian segues into the dreamy melody that emerges, making it sound like the most natural thing in the world. We move from almost being blown back in our seats by the power of his playing, to leaning forward to catch the subtle nuances – then flinching as the tempest rages up and down the keys again. But while the tempo and force of his attack suggest something unleashed and chaotic, his discipline never wavers, and we are tenderly led back to safety.
A tranquil view at interval of the Little Russell in the evening light did something to return heart rates to normal. When we returned, the programme Sebastian outlined – chosen with Guernsey very much in mind – revolved around water. Thoughtfully soothing for us, but no less challenging for him…
Liszt’s innovative Jeux D’eau was inspired by the fountains of the Villa D’Este in Tivoli, using a variety of pianistic techniques to conjure up water in all its restless fluidity. Sebastian’s weightless precision, making the notes ripple, sparkle and flow almost without human intervention, was masterful. It would be impossible to hear without a shimmer in the mind’s eye.
The three songs that followed, from Schubert’s ‘Die Schone Mullerin’ transcribed for piano by Liszt, show the composer as more storyteller than painter. The tale of the young miller from Wilhelm Muller’s poem who sets out to explore the world, finds love, loses it and then begs his beloved to avoid an evil prince who threatens sorrow and heartache, drives a dramatic narrative.
Moving closer to the saltwater of home, we had Debussy’s towering, resonant work ‘La Cathedrale Engloutie’. Muffled chords stack up to build a wavering image of imaginative profundity. In Sebastian’s hands we felt the shudder of ancient granite withstanding the battery of the waves, with a hint of bells’ muffled chiming in the sunken belfry. He managed to catch the spectral sense of an unpeopled nave swirling with slowmotion strands of deep-anchored weed, a passage for primeval tides and drowned liturgy.
The recital closed with another evocative piece by Debussy, this time prompted by a very different landscape. L’isle Joyeuse was inspired by Watteau’s painting of the mythical island of Cythera, birthplace of Venus, goddess of erotic love. It was completed while Debussy was escaping scandal on Jersey with his mistress, Emma Bardac. It begins with a air of delicious anticipation, strange fluttering harmonies suggesting the tugging breezes stirring up the foam and wafting thistledown from coast to coast. That sparkling energy propels the music onwards, capricious, euphoric, finally swelling to an exultant climax, radiating the confidence of a unique world: a microclimate if you will, that sets its own rules, free from the constraints of landlocked existence. In October of 1904, Debussy wrote to his publisher, Durand, ‘How difficult it is to play. This piece seems to me to combine every way of attacking the instrument because it unites force and grace.’ That seems to me not a bad synopsis of Sebastian Grand’s supple performance on this evening.
Thanks again to the Swallow 2018 Charitable Trust, who together with Guernsey Arts, made this superb recital possible.
Julia Meredith 2nd July 2023