St Mary’s Church, Perivale, London
Sunday 12 July 2020
Bach – French Suite in G, BWV186
Bartók – Piano Sonata, Sz.80
Schumann – Fantasie in C, Op.17
The Keyboard Charitable Trust has introduced me to some memorable young pianists. None more so than Jonathan Ferrucci. His programme at the enchanting twelfth-century Church of St Mary’s Perivale takes us in the space of some ninety minutes into three musical worlds of enormous differences. He is a polyglot: all three musical languages spoken like a native without a trace of an accent. There is humility here too. He seduces his audience into his adventures. Seemingly without effort. I was amazed to hear the sounds you can seduce from a Yamaha piano. Ronald Knox won the Oxford theology prize when the students were given three hours to write about the miracle of Jesus walking on the water. At the end of three hours he had written eight words: when the water saw its Lord it blushed. He walked off with the prize. The other students were left to ponder their waffle.
Jonathan Ferrucci is the ripe young age of 26. His daily practice of Ashtanga Yoga probably shapes this. It was many decades ago that I learned from my Oriental friends that mind and body are not separate entities but inseparably intertwined. Jonathan and his instrument are as one. His magic fingers weave spells through the keys. When the keys saw their Lord comes to mind. He can be aggressive as well as tenderly coxing with the keys. His use of what pianists call cushioning was impressive. This is when a pianist needs to feel through a sideways stroke, the moment the hammer hits the string: a very rapid curtsey over the note to better feel its contact is necessary. Some nifty left foot pedalling also helps. The St Mary’s Perivale concerts are peopled entirely by amateurs. But a word of praise here for Rob, who filmed the recital. No professional could have done a better job. The camera was always wherever a musician would want it: under the pianist’s fingers, over them, at the pedals and so forth. Masterly. A filmmaker who knows the music as well as the pianist. Even fades in and out, which can be distracting. But these were not. They were pertinent. Top of the class in musicianship Rob.
I am nervous with the word soul. All overused words are rendered meaningless by their very overuse. But in Jonathan Ferrucci’s case, no other word will do. This playing is not something which can be taught. I don’t know any of his recent or current teachers. But the teacher who will be getting most out of him is the one who urges him to expand his musical understanding from his innermost depths. Eliso Virsaladze (chief piano professor at the Moscow Conservatory) once urged me to stop writing how expert she was at getting music out of her talented students. I do indeed try to do that she said, then added, But there are also times when you have to put something IN to their musicianship. Indeed. I have witnessed her reducing grown young men to tears in insisting they try another approach to a particular score. She was right to do it. It is what is called a challenge. She will only do this when what at first looks like bullying is in reality, requiring her pupil to find the unexpected from innermost depths. Jonathan, through his devout daily yoga practice, is expanding every day in this way. This kind of challenge is his lifeblood. No tears for Jonathan. Or if there are, they are of a different order. Knowing your hidden depths in any sphere can be a painful business. But the eventual pleasure of the discovery is a joy. However, care is needed here too: He who binds to himself a joy / Doth the winged life destroy. / But he who kisses that joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sunrise (William Blake).
Eternity’s sunrise danced all the way through Bach’s most frequently performed French Suite, No.5 in G. One of this pianist’s most attractive assets is his total awareness that on the concert platform he is in the hands of the gods. His preparation for the concert is meticulous and his worship of the gods (yes: at base this is a religious observation informed by his Oriental practices) couldn’t be more respectful. What the audience receives is his unspoken message of something bigger than me at work here which I must try to reach.
Some detail. Bach’s aristocratic courtly dances are from other moments in history. But under Ferrucci fingers they deliver a vitality which is exclusively of the moment in its very exactness. His striving is our reward. In the Allemande his right hand is the more dominant. But wait. I now hear that his left hand knows the essential secret of all stage actors: less is more. So quietly speaking left hand is winning out over the potentially bullying right. Two independent pianists at work, presided over by a third deity of the Trinity which informs both performers.
Breathtaking. Even Glenn Gould did not manage this Trinitarian delivery. It brings to mind what Schumann wrote in his newspaper when he heard Chopin play: Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!
The wistful delivery of the Sarabande and the impudent charm of the Gavotte were other pleasures with the catch-me-if-you-can Bourrée. Ah Bach, thou shouldst have been living at this hour as a poet said of another occasion.
The Bartók sonata could hardly be more contrasting. Jonathan’s spoken introduction to this work was useful. (I am normally against such introductions.) He spoke about the savage brutality which most honest Hungarians recognise within themselves. Annie Fischer’s husband, who ran the Opera in Budapest told me he recognised it as the nation’s defining quality. He would be right too on today’s Hungarian scene. And Bartók was writing at a moment when nationalism was in vogue. (Dvořák, Smetana, and Grieg took gentler approaches of their nationalism.) The first movement is full of pianistic brutalities, rightly delivered with no apology from the Ferrucci fingers. (My own piano teacher once told me regarding another Bartók piece, For god’s sake don’t try to make apologies for these dissonances.) There is something icy about the second movement in Ferrucci world. Not cool. But studiedly understated. Then amazingly he manages to make the dissonances sing! The finale has characteristic Bartók jerky rhythms working against one another. But again, in Jonathan’s telling of the tale, these rhythms sing!
Even more than in Bach and Bartók it is Jonathan’s total identification with his instrument – his physicality – which speaks to us in Schumann’s Fantasie in C, Op.17, reworked at Liszt’s request and only performed by his beloved wife after Schumann’s death. The Ferrucci build ups to the dramatic climaxes are beautifully made in the most measured ways while managing to sound improvised. Rob’s filming shows us that the cantabile is made from the hand rather than the usual forearm. There is the warmth of the midday sun in these singing melodies, a glorious accomplishment from a Yamaha piano. Engaging the pedals gives a thrilling echo effect. Jonathan later told me that his preferred piano is a Fazioli and he was honoured to have been invited by Ingénierie Fazioli to give a recital at Fazioli Hall. Well even I sound like a great pianist on a Fazioli which reality will tell you, is far from the case. A tour of the factory showed how these instruments were made according to the specific requirements of the ordering pianist. But the piano will cost you more than the price of your house. Is this cheating? Well Clifford Curzon once asked me to change over Santa Cecilia’s newly acquired Steinway for an old one pushed to the back of the stage, adding, We’ll leave that new Steinway to the young lions. I like a piano that I play: not one that plays me.
Of course, Jonathan Ferrucci is not in Sir Clifford’s ‘young lions’ category. His uniqueness is almost by default. It is not so much that he has found his art as his art has found him. I have never been able to say this of any other pianist I have reviewed.
After the drama of Schumann, he played an encore of Poulenc’s Improvisation No.13 in A minor. Not the usual witty sparking of Poulenc, but hauntingly whispered:
Hushed was the evening hymn.
The temple courts were dark,
The lamp was burning dim
Before the sacred ark;
When suddenly a voice divine
Rang though the silence of the shrine.
(That hymn should ideally be sung to the tune of Samuel by Arthur Sullivan.)