Undoubtedly Thomas Nickell is a player and musician of real talent and promise, but the booklet that accompanies the concert series does him no favours by some very large claims (eg ‘The American Mozart’ and the preposterously inflated title of the series: ‘The Artist at Seventeen’). Let the musician’s talent tell its own evolving story in the years to come and then we can judge.

imageThis concert forms part of a series of events held in Cheltenham, Stratford and London intended to showcase the talents of the seventeen-year old American pianist Thomas Nickell, and the two orchestras conducted by David Curtis, and in this case the Orchestra of the Swan. This particular concert also provides an opportunity for the London premiere of David Matthews’ new piano concerto, played by Nickell in the second half. The programme choices were intriguing, but the execution of the constituent elements proved to be uneven.

It was a felicitous idea in a year of Shakespearean commemoration to begin with two items from Walton’s film music from Henry V. Stripped of context much film music can seem slight and purposeless, but not here. In fact free of the dramatic framework both pieces stood out for their craftsmanship and ability to exist on their own merits. The passacaglia, which accompanies the death of Falstaff in the film, showed in particular how Walton was quite as adept as his rival and contemporary Benjamin Britten in composing variations above a bass line in the style of Purcell. The strings of the Orchestra of the Swan played these pieces with a many-layered sense of detail that promised much for the rest of the evening.

The next work was both familiar and unfamiliar. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is well known in its original version for organ, but here we heard it as arranged for string orchestra by the late Steve Martland. It was certainly a real pleasure to hear the contrapuntal textures apportioned and teased out differently from the usual organ registration, and with an austerity and toughness of texture that is quite different from the lush arrangement by Elgar of the Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, played earlier in this series.

However, as the final resonant chord died away it was hard to say what significant additional value was provided by this version. Yes, there were some snappy staccato moments that added rhythmic vigour, and it was good to hear the work free from an over-reverberant acoustic; but it ended just as Martland began to depart a little from the original, and we were left wanting a set of variations to follow, rather than a full close. Or a reworking of the tradition just as Stravinsky does in Dumbarton Oaks, taking the form and pouring modern materials into those familiar channels.

The first half concluded with the first appearance of Thomas Nickell in Bach’s first keyboard concerto in D Minor. This is a relatively late work derived most probably from a lost violin concerto. There are three movements with the slow movement, an uneasy introspective minimalist exercise, at its heart. The outer movements are more exuberant with stern octave passages at the outset of each and passages of brilliance that sound more like Vivaldi than Bach. Nickell was more at home in exploring the dark hues of the slow movement and shaped some impressive arcs of sound between the orchestral introjections. His passage-work was sometimes blurred in the outer movements and needed more crisp articulation of the kind that András Schiff displays effortlessly in this repertory. As with the Mozart piano concerti, these works are deceptively difficult to master: technical mastery is only the start of a journey towards an effortless weightlessness where time seems to be suspended. With more experience this skill may well be within this pianist’s reach.

imageAfter the interval the orchestra resumed with the best performance of the evening: Britten’s first youthful masterpiece, Variations on a theme by Frank Bridge (1937). Such is the virtuosity of the writing that the listener feels the work must, at times, be for full orchestra rather than strings alone. A huge range of timbres and moods are conveyed, and Curtis made sure that his forces explored the full palette. In particular, the variations that have a Mediterranean zing and bounce to them were projected with full vigour, but not at the expense of the mood of pathos that gathers hauntingly towards the end, anticipating not just the Serenade of a few years later, but also the ghostly shivers of The Turn of the Screw. It is rare to find such unmitigated exhilaration in Britten’s work, and for all of his unmatched skill in opera, one can only regret that he did not attempt more ventures in this form in later life. This work certainly stands as an equal alongside the more famous works for strings by Elgar and Vaughan Williams. All credit to David Curtis for unfurling its full glories here.

The concert concluded with the new work by David Matthews, which deserves to be heard more often. In some ways it is a conventional work: there is a loose adherence to sonata form in much of the work, though the second movement is an infectious tango that summons up the world of Lecuona and Piazzolla. The third movement, ‘elegy’ sounded very like one of Bartok’s ‘night music’ interludes – indeed this composer is probably the most significant influence on the work as a whole. The final movement started jauntily but then sounded a note of gravity in a self-consciously ‘big tune’ that dominated the later sections. The style is tonal and accessible, but not grandiose or too serious. Nickell was much more at home and relaxed in this work, relishing the syncopated dance rhythms, the teasing dialogue with the orchestra, and the chance to display a varied range of colours in each of the four movements. All-in-all this was a refreshing reminder that invention and creative joy can still be found in the old classical forms.

As an encore Thomas Nickell played a movement from his own recent Piano Sonata No. 3, which displayed strong influences from the twentieth-century Russian composers and the beginnings of a distinctive musical personality. The chromaticism of Scriabin and the boldness and filigree ornamentation of Rachmaninov were both in evidence. Undoubtedly he is a player and musician of real talent and promise, but the booklet that accompanies the concert series does him no favours by some very large claims (eg ‘The American Mozart’ and the preposterously inflated title of the series: ‘The Artist at Seventeen’). Let the musician’s talent tell its own evolving story in the years to come and then we can judge.

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Thomas Nickell and the Orchestra of the Swan
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…