A pianist all the way down the line. Everything was exactly right…a beautiful performance.”
– David Dubal, host of The Piano Matters, WWFM New York & WFMT Chicago


As persuasive a performance as one could wish forplayed with such conviction and so beautifully. She shrugged lightly aside the manifold technical difficulties of the music in a riveting performance coloured with a delectable tonal palette. Her playing [of Dallapiccola] said to the listener not an apologetic ‘if you really listen hard you will surely find something here to enjoy,’ but rather an enthusiatic ‘forget the methodology, this is wonderful music — enjoy!'”
– Music in Victoria (British Columbia)


“Moves between old and modern material with breathtaking ease and fluency.”
– The Holland Times (Amsterdam)


“Both subtle and lyricalpoetic and complex.”
– La Scena Musicale (Montreal)


“Clarity, charm, and equipoise…liquid grace…live-wire tautness…performed with the fervor of a pianist who has established a deep connection to the Bach repertoire.”
 – The Sacramento Bee (California)


“Solid and expressive…absorbing.”
– Peninsula Reviews (California)


“If you have not heard her Prokofiev, dare I say, you have not lived.”
– Melanie Bietz, pianist, teacher, and audience member


concert Review: Germans and italians at the keyboard

Music in Victoria

Those who find the Twelve-Tone method of composition pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg offensive, frequently complain that the method allows for nothing in the way of melody or beauty. One can only assume that these complainers have never encountered the music of Luigi Dallapiccola or any of his numerous pupils, perhaps most notably Luciano Berio and Frederic Rzewski. Dallapiccola’s Quaderno musicale di Annelibera was composed in 1952 for his then eight-year-old daughter, although not, it should probably be pointed out, for her to play — the eleven short piece are more in the tradition of Schumann’s Kinderszenen than Bartók’s For Children.

The Dallapiccola formed the centrepiece of the first half of Anyssa Neumann’s wonderfully eclectic recital for Oak Bay Music on Saturday, in a performance which must surely have inspired at least some of those present to investigate the composer further. Dallapiccola’s considerable achievement, it seems to me, is that, while utilising the full armory of the serialist, he produced a work which is, by turns, charming, affectionate, playful and energetic.

Neumann clearly holds the music in high regard and gave as persuasive a performance as one could wish for, from the slowly treading, tolling bells of the opening Simbolo (Symbol) to the delicate close of the final Quartina (Quatrain). Her playing said to the listener not an apologetic “if you really listen hard you will surely find something here to enjoy”, but rather an enthusiatic “forget the methodology, this is wonderful music — enjoy!”

Even what was, on the face of it, the most “difficult” piece, Andantino amorose e Contrapunctus tertius, which is in the form of a “crab” canon (or canon cancrizans, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a musical canon in which the comes is a retrograde version of the dux“; well, obviously), in Neumann’s hands, came across as more affectionate than anything else. (Incidentally, and pace M-W, a simpler definition is that the crab canon is one in which one canonical line is played backwards; in the Quaerendo invenietis of Bach’s Musical Offering the second line is also inverted, which is achieved by one player turning the music upside-down.) For this delightful glimpse into a composer who is, for most of us, little more than a footnote in the history of the music of the Twentieth Century, I was certainly more than grateful.

The Dallapiccola was preceded and followed by two of Bach’s lesser-known keyboard works. For the opening Six Little Preludes, Neumann adopted a tone rather warmer than the almost dessicated one which many pianists seem today to feel obliged to use, yet it was far from inappropriate. Highlights included BWV930, which was slow and exquisitely beautiful but also immensely profound in the way that only Bach can be. The final BWV925 (she did not play them in order) was delicious and heart-warming.

Neumann closed the first half with Bach’s Aria variata alla maniera italiana, the aria itself sharing the feel of the theme of the Goldbergs. I’m not sure that I could ascertain the difference between the “Italian” and any other Eighteenth Century manner, although the right hand of the second variation did, for some unaccountable reason, put me in mind of Rossini. Once again I can only express my gratitude that Neumann not only gave us some less often heard Bach, but that she played it with such conviction and so beautifully.

Leoš Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path began life as just three pieces in 1901, intended for the harmonium. Seven years later, there were nine pieces, now designated as being for the piano. In 1911 the definitive version of what is now Book I, consisting of ten pieces, was pubished, followed almost immediately (September 30, 1911) by the first of what would become Book II, a further five short pieces. Various of the pieces have been arranged for string quartet, for orchestra, for accordion, for guitar quartet, for oboe quartet, for wind ensemble and for string orchestra.

Clearly, these short pieces are of considerable interest, which makes it all the stranger that they are not more often heard; to my knowledge, aside from on record, I have never heard more than one or two of these pieces in the flesh, given as encores. The pieces of Book I, which Neumann gave us, are without exception exquisite miniatures: Our Evenings, for instance, seemed redolent of the domestic bliss of an older couple in their twilight years; A Blown-Away Leaf was a study in evanescence; Come With Us! appropriately inviting. I was most taken with the solemnity and cimbalom-like textures of The Madonna of Frydek and the enigmatic Words Fail!. Unutterable Anguish certainly lived up to its title, conveying an increasing sense of desperation, with its repeated two-note figure like a knife striking at the heart; how apt that the succeeding In Tears was lachrymose yet somehow consoling. The title of last piece — The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away — put me in mind, somewhat irreverently, of one of those coded recognition signals exchanged in espionage novels and spoken in a heavily cod-Slavic accent: “The geese are on the wing tonight”, “Yes, but the barn owl has not flown away”. Neumann characterised each piece superbly and left at least one listener keen to hear Book II.

Quejas, ó la maja y el ruiseñor (Laments, or the Maiden and the Nightingale) is the best-known of Enrique Granados’s suite Goyescas, generally considered his masterpiece. I understand that the main melody was borrowed by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez for her 1940 song “Bésame Mucho”, but I found myself wondering whether Astor Piazzolla might not also have been acquainted with it. In Neumann’s hands it was most certainly plaintive and she shrugged lightly aside the manifold technical difficulties of the music in a riveting performance coloured with a delectable tonal palette.

Finally, Neumann gave us Liszt’s spectacular arrangement of Isolde’s Liebestod from his son-in-law, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Liszt, of course, not only provided Wagner with his second wife, Cosima, he may also have supplied the famous “Tristan” chord (there is a letter extant in which Wagner admits to having borrowed the chord but then proceeds to say that “there is no need to let everybody know” — nice man), although it has been suggested that the chord is actually present in works by Chopin (the Mazurka Op.68 No.4), Berlioz (Romeo et Juliette) and even earlier composers.

Although the nineteenth century is replete with keyboard arrangements of orchestral music, intended largely for domestic consumption, when Liszt made this transcription he was quite probably the only living pianist capable of performing it. Today piano technique has advanced considerably, in no small part due to Liszt’s own technical innovations, and Neumann quickly showed that she too has technique to spare, in a wonderfully involving performance, beautfully contoured and with a commanding control of the gradually rising tension. When the music died away the silence in the church was all but tangible, before the tide of applause swept it away.

Of course there had to be an encore and it was, as Neumann said, “back to the Germans and Italians” with one of Ferrucio Busoni’s piano version of a Bach organ chorale prelude, “Nunn komm, der Heiden Heiland”. (For many who had the privilege to hear them both, Busoni was second only to Liszt as history’s greatest pianist.) This lovely piece proved a most suitable foil to the overheated Wagner and a perfect end to a most enjoyable evening.


CD Review: Bach, Beethoven, Messiaen, Prokofiev

The Holland Times

What does classical music have to say to us? Everything, sometimes, especially when Anyssa Neumann, a young pianist who has made her mark in the concert halls of both North America and Europe, sits down at the keyboard. It is an opinion confirmed by her debut solo recording, which moves between old and modern material with breathtaking ease and fluency.

When Bach published his Fourth Partita in 1728, keyboards were becoming common in middle-class German homes, but Bach, himself a fearsome instrumentalist, wanted to limit these works to accomplished musicians, not social-climbing housewives. Neumann’s nuanced treatment of this monument of keyboard literature manages to integrate its various antecedents and influences, in no small part due to her sound, which has a pearly quality that contrasts gloriously with her rigorous attack.

Beethoven’s Sonata 31 in A-flat Major, Opus 110, from 1821, was delivered to the publisher more than a year after it was due and the composer’s struggle to make it whole shows. Neumann is certainly up to the minor-key comedy of the second movement, which makes use of two folk songs—“I’m a Slob, You’re a Slob” and “Our Cat’s Had Kittens,” which Beethoven had arranged some time earlier in payment for postage stamps.

The rest of Neumann’s program ascends to peaks that are no less beautiful and distinctive. La Colombe is perhaps the best-known example of Messiaen’s innovative effort to flesh out the harmonic possibilities of classic serialism: at the very end of the piece, the upper harmonics of a single tone (in this case an E) are used to build the concluding chord. The effect is both ghostly and charming. Neumann manages to redeem Prokofiev’s Romeo Bids Juliet Farewell from its status as a kitsch classic, transforming it from a teen lament into a Platonic imperative.

If the question is not so much what classical music has to say to us as what we have to say to classical music, we would do well to listen well to Neumann.


Concert Review: Neumann livens up Bach

The Sacramento Bee

An observation often made about the music of J.S. Bach is that it lacks a certain contrast and drama. Pianist Anyssa Neumann is more than happy to dispel that notion and she did so elegantly during a standout recital at Sacramento’s St. Mark’s Church during the third concert of the Sacramento Bach Festival.

To make her point, Neumann programmed Bach’s limpid and lovingly crafted French Suite No. 2 in C minor against the complex and powerful Partita No. 4 in D Major. That’s about as stark a contrast as possible with Bach’s keyboard works. And on Friday evening, Neumann handled both ends of a narrow musical spectrum with clarity, charm and equipoise.

She performed all four Bach works on the program, which included three sinfonias, and the Prelude and Fugue in E Major, by memory. The works are neither the most difficult nor the most complex among Bach’s keyboard output. Conveying the subtle musical poetry therein, some of which seems to exist on a minute level, is key. Doing so proved no obstacle for Neumann, who performed with the fervor of a pianist who has established a deep connection to the Bach repertoire.

After enticing the audience with a straightforward approach to the Prelude and Fugue in E major, Neumann delved into the delectable French Suite. She performed this six-movement work, written by Bach as an educational aid to help his second wife improve on the keyboard, with an eye toward clarity. The opening Allemande was performed with a liquid grace that gave way to the slower and emotionally malleable courante. In the sarabande, Neumann distinguished herself as a pianist willing to play confidently with subtle keyboard dynamics. The music in the suite unfolded seamlessly, like a life-affirming and well-rounded conversation between friends. Three sinfonias followed the suite to end the first half of the concert, but these did not leave much of an impression.

Such was not the case with the Partita No. 4 in D Major that anchored the second half of the program. Here was found much glowing musical inertia, especially in the potent ending – potent enough to make one think of Bach as bold. This partita is all about balance, and of a telltale arrangement of emotional space within, and between notes. In this, Neumann did a stellar job, especially with the luxuriant overture. Here she performed with intensity, the notes clear and powerful. But it was in the slow and almost elusive warm quality of the sarabande that Neumann revealed Bach the musical humanist.

And as befits good endings, Neumann imparted a live-wire tautness to the closing gigue. Neumann kept the tour-de-force ending rooted to the idea that, as far as Bach is concerned, there’s more drama and contrast than meets the eye.


Concert Review: Rena Harms and Anyssa Neumann in recital (Queen’s Gate Terrace Concerts, London)

Planet Hugill

American soprano Rena Harms is best known to UK audiences from her performances as Amelia in ENO’s recent production of Simon Boccanegra. She will be appearing with Florentine opera as Michaela and with Staatstheater Braunschweig as Fiordiligi and we caught her and accompanist Anyssa Neumann at a private recital in London on Thursday, 6 December, at the end of a run recitals that the two have been doing in the UK.

Harms has a rich vibrant voice. She is a lyric soprano but you can’t help feeling that her voice will develop in more dramatic directions. Her warm vibrato was perhaps a little strong for my taste in her opening number, Care Selve from Handel’s Atalanta, but she was technically poised. She followed this with a group of nicely contrasted Schubert songs, Du bist die Ruh, Gretchen am Spinnrade, Nacht und Traume and Rastlose liebe. Harms is a dramatic performer and each song was given its dramatic setting. This vivid presentation was aided by the fact that Harms delivered the whole programme from memory. She is clearly a natural stage creature and she rendered each song like a scene. She was ably abetted by the rich depth of tone that Anyssa Neumann brought to the accompaniment.

I wasn’t sure that this treatment worked so well with the group of Faure songs, Mandoline, Clair de lune and Fleur jetee. With Faure, less is often more and I wanted a greater purity of line and a more intensely French intonation and diction. Harms makes a warm, open sound which did not always suit the songs.

But she and Neumann came into their own with a nicely vibrant performance of Manuel de Falla’s Seven popular Spanish songs. Here Harms’ dramatic delivery charmed and involved, giving each song its own distinct flavour. Her rich voice suited the music and Neumann conjured vibrant Spanish depth in the piano.

After the interval Harms sang Samuel Barber’s Four Songs, Op. 13, which set words by Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Butler Yeats, James Agee and Frederic Prokosch. It was a change to hear her singing in her native English and she brought new relaxed naturalism to the songs. I’d love to hear Harms performing Barber’s Hermit Songs.

Next a glorious group of Richard Strauss songs, Morgen, Zueignung, Allerseelen and Cacilie. Harms seems to have just the right combination of talents for these, richly vibrant and dramatic with a nice flexibility of lyric voice, with the ability to spin a long line, whilst allow the voice to fill out the climaxes.

I have to confess that I did find a little disconcerting her tendency to dramatise everything, presenting every song as a scena. But she certainly engendered a warm reaction in the audience. She finished with a group of Puccini arias, nicely differentiating Liu, Mimi and Laura, a lovely end to the evening.

I do not normally report a private recital in some depth, but felt that Harms and Neumann deserved every support for such an involving recital. 


Concert Review: ANyssa neumann, Bach suites, blackheath halls (London)


Today was the day after the UK general election. Regardless of one’s own political stripe it was a remarkable morning, difficult to take in and process: expectation confounded, assumptions swept aside. All the release of the prior five week’s pressured campaigning was as shocking as it was a relief.

I was glad of an opportunity to get out to Blackheath Halls to hear the American pianist Anyssa Neumann give a psyche-rinsing recital of Bach for keyboard. It was also a good opportunity to experience a concert in the recital room. Recently refurbished, it’s a clean, pale shoebox to seat around 100 with decorous Farrow & Ball-like curtains and stained glass cresting the sizeable windows.

Anyssa played the French Suite No.1 BWV 812, Two-part Inventions Nos. 14, 6 & 4 BWVs 785, 775, 777 and the English Suite No. 5 BWV 810. There is an unobfuscated finesse to her execution, picking out voice-leading not with spotlighting but with focus. The measured rhetorical opening of the French Suite invited attention to the lines: no teasing Gallic filigree here but the assurance of a well-lit path. I heard the Sarabande through the prism of the dizzying political change of the morning as a sober but stoic argument, the campaign post-mortem if you like. Though the closing Gigue recalled the political frenzy with destabilising, impulsive flourishes it was held in check by the newly-established sobriety in the bass (these were my own metaphorical images, of course, but the consistency of this narrative reflects the integrity of the performance as a suite).

In fact the lower voicing of Anyssa’s performance was a tremendous feature of this recital. One might also credit the instrument and the room. The sound in the space is clear and alive but without any superfluous reverberance. I loved the sound of the piano, especially in the lower register, with copper-vessel tone that lent a slightly different character to the sound of rising scales, like a proper baritone singing back up into the middle of the counterpoint. There is no information about the Bösendorfer on the Blackheath Halls website (perhaps the Semi Concert Grand Model 225 with sub-contra notes blacked out at the lower octave) but it’s an instrument to cherish.

So I encountered this recital as a grand displacement metaphor. That’s OK, I think – the clarity of the sketching out of the music on the piano allowed me to untangle my thoughts and iron them out. The rest of the audience was local, appreciative and as actively silent as the acoustic: a nice, natural consensus in music on a day when consensus elsewhere might have seemed rather awkward.