Michael Massey (piano)
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton
Saturday, July 22nd
The third biennial Alberta Pianofest wrapped up on Saturday at Holy Trinity Church, with a piano recital by one of Edmonton’s best known musicians, Michael Massey.
It completed an enlarged festival – nine main concerts, plus talks and a symposium – that took place, for the first time, entirely in Edmonton. The purpose of the festival is to bring high-quality piano playing to the city in the summer, but also to provide an educational opportunity for a dozen teenage pianists (aged from 12 to 18) to take part in an intensive summer workshop. Four of those young pianists preceded Massey’s recital in an unannounced but welcome prelude to the main part of the recital, showing off their skills in works by Chopin, Kabalevsky, and François Morel.
Michael Massey – who was inducted into the Alberta Order of Excellence last year – is now perhaps best known for his work as conductor of the Edmonton Youth Orchestra, but he has also been influential as a pianist. He initially joined the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra as a cellist, but after two years he became the ESO’s pianist, a position he continues to hold after some four decades. He has taught piano extensively, and indeed the artistic director of Alberta Pianofest, the pianist and now New York resident Jason Cutmore, was a pupil of his.
Massey’s recital on Saturday was notable for the type of music he decided to play. The tone was set by Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major Op.76 no. 6, in a contemplative performance that suited Massey’s general emotional feel – its mellowness was rather like Gandalf taking a break from the action to light a pipe of Old Toby and ruminating away.
That tone entirely suited the little suite of three pieces that make up John Ireland’s Green Ways, all inspired by literature. The first, ‘Cherry’, based on A. E. Houseman’s poem ‘Loveliest of Trees’ (perhaps best known in the vocal setting by George Butterworth), pictures rather dense cherry blossoms in an English pastoral style, that again has an introspective, ruminative element. ‘Cypus’ reflects Shakespeare (Twelfth Night’s “Come away, come away, death, And in sad cypress let me be laid”), and is a kind of slow movement in the suite, angular and painterly, and inconclusive in its ending. The final piece, after Thomas Nash’s ‘The Palm and May’ opens as if tone-painting fast-flowing streams, and then has a dance feel to it, as if garlands were being strewn: Massey built up to the ending with exactly the right pace and feel.
It was a pleasure to hear the Ireland, though it should perhaps be said that, attractive though Green Ways is, there is quite a body of the composer’s little-known piano music that is both finer and more challenging. Similarly, it was good to hear some works by the Russian composer (and contemporary of Rachmaninov), Nikolai Medtner, whose music Massey has long cherished, but this was also a mixed blessing.
Medtner did write some very fine music (notably the early Piano Quintet, and the first and third piano concertos), but he was also a composer who could get caught up in his own invention. So it was with the Sonata Reminiscenza Op. 38 no. 1 (one of the composer’s 12 piano sonatas). Its reminiscent tone fitted the pattern of the recital, and it is poetic in its opening, but it shows the composer’s weaknesses as well as his strengths. Its failing (as with quite a lot of Medtner) is that it simply does not have enough variety in the writing to sustain its length. It attempts to keep the listeners in the same sort of ruminative ecstasy throughout, with the song elements in the middle voices and a reliance on repeated patterns in the top and bottom of the range.
Much the same might be said of some of the ‘Fairy Tales’ he wrote throughout his life – little colourful pieces, essentially ballads. The Fairy Tale in B flat minor Op. 20 no. 1 and Fairy Tale in E flat major Op. 26 no. 1 were pleasant enough, richly textured, but the tales, alas, largely unmemorable. The Fairy Tale in F sharp minor Op. 35 no. 4, however, is much more expressive and highly charged, with a freer flow, and showed how effective Medtner can be – a fine way to end the festival. I can see how gratifying these pieces must be to play, but overall Massey’s selection here confirmed that while Medtner is well worth hearing once in a while, perhaps once in a while is the operative element – but all the more important to have the chance to hear it here.
The Alberta Pianofest Society plans to launch another venture this November – an annual chamber music festival. This is a much more crowded field already well served by the Edmonton Recital Society and the Edmonton Chamber Music Society – not to mention the Summer Solstice chamber music festival – and it will be interesting to see how the ‘Alberta Chamberfest’ adds to this. In the meantime, the Society is filling an important niche by bring its summer piano music festival to Edmonton. It deserves to establish a following in the years to come.